Lake Ecosystems


Lakes are bodies of nonmarine standing water connected by water flow and aerial inputs to their surrounding landscapes (watersheds). As relatively discrete ecosystems, the interplay between physical, biogeochemical and organismal processes in them is especially clear, and can be studied, understood and put to use in effective management. Sunlight penetrating from the lake surface provides energy that warms the surface water, energy for photosynthesis and an environment suitable for predators that hunt by sight. The depth to which light penetrates is determined by the amount of suspended particles (phytoplankton, organic and inorganic sediments) and coloured organic chemical compounds dissolved in the water. Important chemicals entering from the watershed include essential nutrients (chiefly phosphorus and nitrogen) and pollutants that are taken up and passed through the food chain from primary producers (phytoplankton and rooted plants) to consumers (animals that eat plants and other animals). All organisms in lakes have adaptations that affect the strengths of their interactions with their physical and biogeochemical environments and with other species in the food web. Introduced species, pollutants, and other changes in the environment result in rapid evolution of the adaptations that determine interaction strengths. These processes are particularly obvious in discrete lake ecosystems.

Key Concepts:

  • Lakes are relatively discrete ecosystems; the interplay between physical, biogeochemical and organismal processes in them can be easily studied.

  • Lakes take up a small proportion of the Earth's surface but their ecological importance is disproportionately high.

  • Lake ecosystems are influenced by their watersheds; a lake and its watershed are often considered to be a single ecosystem.

  • Thermal stratification in lakes generates vertical structure and compartments with different physical, chemical and biological properties.

  • The shallow‐water littoral and the open‐water pelagic are the two major horizontal zones in lakes; each zone has its characteristic food chain based on macrophytes and benthic algae or phytoplankton.

  • Carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus are the major nutrients affecting lakes and their watersheds as part of their biogeochemical cycles. Production is limited by phosphorus in most, but not all, lakes.

  • The lake sediment plays an important role as habitat for rooted plants and animals, as nutrient storage (particularly phosphorus), and as a repository of decayed material and dormant stages of lake organisms.

  • Both bottom‐up and top‐down processes determine the trophic structure and dynamics in lake food chains and webs.

  • Lake ecosystems are shaped by both ecological and evolutionary processes that occur on the same time scale.

Keywords: limnology; fresh water; thermal stratification; phytoplankton; zooplankton; lake food chain


Brooks JL and Dodson SI (1965) Predation, body size, and composition of plankton. Science 150: 28–35.

Carpenter SR and Kitchell JF (1993) The Trophic Cascade in Lakes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Edmondson WT (1991) The Uses of Ecology – Lake Washington and Beyond. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lampert W (2011) Daphnia: Development of a Model Organism in Ecology and Evolution. Excellence in Ecology Vol. 21. Oldendorf/Luhe, Germany: International Ecology Institute.

Lampert W, Fleckner W, Rai H and Taylor BE (1986). Phytoplankton control by grazing zooplankton – A study on the spring clear‐water phase. Limnology and Oceanography 31: 478–490.

Likens GE (ed.) (1985) An Ecosystem Approach to Aquatic Ecology: Mirror Lake and its Environment. New York: Springer‐Verlag.

Orsini L, Schwenk K, De Meester L et al. (2013) The evolutionary time machine: using dormant propagules to forcast how populations can adapt to changing environments. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28: 274–282.

Schindler DW (1974) Eutrophication and recovery in experimental lakes: Implications for lake management. Science 184: 897–899.

Schindler DW (1978) Factors regulating phytoplankton production and standing crop in the world's freshwaters. Limnology and Oceanography 23: 478–486.

Sterner RW and Elser JJ (2002) Ecological Stoichiometry. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Tranvik LJ, Downing JA, Cotner JB et al. (2009) Lakes and reservoirs as regulators of carbon cycling and climate. Limnology and Oceanography 54: 2298–2314.

Further Reading

Lampert W and Sommer U (1997) Limnoecology: The ecology of lakes and streams. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wetzel RG (2001) Limnology 3rd edn. New York: Academic Press.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Hairston, Nelson G, and Fussmann, Gregor F(May 2014) Lake Ecosystems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003191.pub2]