Background. Organism biomass is one of the most important variables in ecological studies, making estimations of organism weight one of the most common laboratory tasks. Biomass of small macroinvertebrates is usually estimated as dry (DW) or ash-free dry weight (AFDW); a laborious and time consuming process, that often can be speeded up using easily measured and reliable proxy variables like wet/fresh weight and/or body size. Another common way of estimating AFDW - which is the most accurate but also time-consuming estimate of biologically active tissue weight - is the use of AFDW/DW ratios or conversion factors. So far, however, these ratios typically ignore the possibility that the relative weight of biologically active vs. non-active support tissue (e.g. protective exoskeleton or shell) - and therefore, also the AFDW/DW ratio - may change with body size, as previously shown for taxa like spiders, vertebrates and trees.
Methods. We collected samples of aquatic, epibenthic macroinvertebrates (>1 mm) in 32 shallow bays along a 360 km stretch of the Swedish coast along the Baltic Sea; one of the largest brackish water bodies on Earth. We then estimated statistical relationships between the body size (length or height in mm), dry weight and ash-free dry weight for 14 of the most common taxa; five gastropods, three bivalves, three crustaceans and three insect larvae. Finally, we statistically estimated the potential influence of body size on the AFDW/DW ratio per taxon.
Results. For most of the taxa, non-linear regression models describing the power relationship between body size and i) DW and ii) AFDW fit the data well (as indicated by low SE and high R2). Moreover, for more than half of the taxa studied (including the vast majority of the shelled molluscs), body size had a negative influence on organism AFDW/DW ratios.
Discussion. The good fit of the modelled power relationships suggest that the constants reported here can be used to more quickly estimate organism dry- and ash-free dry weight based on body size, thereby freeing up considerable work resources. However, the considerable differences in constants between taxa emphasize the need for taxon-specific relationships, and the potential dangers associated with either ignoring body size or substituting relationships between taxa. The negative influence of body size on AFDW/DW ratio found in a majority of the molluscs could be caused by increasingly thicker shells with organism age, and/or spawning-induced loss of biologically active tissue in adults. Consequently, future studies utilizing AFDW/DW (and presumably also AFDW/wet weight) ratios should carefully assess the potential influence of body size to ensure more reliable estimates of organism biomass.