Food web structure in oil sands reclaimed wetlands

K. E. Kovalenko, J. J.H. Ciborowski, C. Daly, D. G. Dixon, A. J. Farwell, A. L. Foote, K. R. Frederick, J. M.Gardner Costa, K. Kennedy, K. Liber, M. C. Roy, C. A. Slama, J. E.G. Smits

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Boreal wetlands play an important role in global carbon balance. However, their ecosystem function is threatened by direct anthropogenic disturbance and climate change. Oil sands surface mining in the boreal regions of Western Canada denudes tracts of land of organic materials, leaves large areas in need of reclamation, and generates considerable quantities of extraction process-affected materials. Knowledge and validation of reclamation techniques that lead to self-sustaining wetlands has lagged behind development of protocols for reclaiming terrestrial systems. It is important to know whether wetlands reclaimed with oil sands process materials can be restored to levels equivalent to their original ecosystem function. We approached this question by assessing carbon flows and food web structure in naturally formed and oil sands-affected wetlands constructed in 1970-2004 in the postmining landscape. We evaluated whether a prescribed reclamation strategy, involving organic matter amendment, accelerated reclaimed wetland development, leading to wetlands that were more similar to their natural marsh counterparts than wetlands that were not supplemented with organic matter. We measured compartment standing stocks for bacterioplankton, microbial biofilm, macrophytes, detritus, and zoobenthos; concentrations of dissolved organic carbon and residual naphthenic acids; and microbial production, gas fluxes, and aquatic-terrestrial exports (i.e., aquatic insect emergence). The total biomass of several biotic compartments differed significantly between oil sands and reference wetlands. Submerged macrophyte biomass, macroinvertebrate trophic diversity, and predator biomass and richness were lower in oil sands-affected wetlands than in reference wetlands. There was insufficient evidence to conclude that wetland age and wetland amendment with peat-mineral mix mitigate effects of oil sands waste materials on the fully aquatic biota. Although high variability was observed within most compartments, our data show that 20-year-old wetlands containing oil sands material have not yet reached the same level of function as their reference counterparts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1048-1060
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 2013


  • Carbon flows
  • Ecosystem function
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Naphthenic acids
  • Oil sands
  • Tar sands
  • Wetland reclamation

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