The Global Ecoregions also identify the most outstanding examples of diverse and endemic freshwater faunas in large lakes found in temperate and tropical regions, many displaying extraordinary species flocks and adaptive radiations in fish taxa.
Some particularly notable lake biotas include those of the African Rift Lakes and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, Lake Baikal, Lake Biwa of southern Japan, the high altitude lakes of the Andes, and the highland lakes of Mexico.
The ecosystem of a lake includes biotic (living) plants, animals and micro-organisms, as well as abiotic (nonliving) physical and chemical interactions.
Lake ecosystems are a prime examples of lentic ecosystems. Lentic refers to standing or relatively still water, from the Latin lentus, which means sluggish. Lentic waters range from ponds to lakes to wetlands, and much of this article applies to lentic ecosystems in general. Lentic ecosystems can be compared with lotic ecosystems, which involve flowing terrestrial waters such as rivers and streams. Together, these two fields form the more general study area of freshwater or aquatic ecology.
Lentic systems are diverse, ranging from a small, temporary rainwater pool a few inches deep to Lake Baikal, which has a maximum depth of 1740 m. The general distinction between pools/ponds and lakes is vague, but Brown states that ponds and pools have their entire bottom surfaces exposed to light, while lakes do not. In addition, some lakes become seasonally stratified (discussed in more detail below.) Ponds and pools have two regions: the pelagic open water zone, and the benthic zone, which comprises the bottom and shore regions. Since lakes have deep bottom regions not exposed to light, these systems have an additional zone, the profundal.These three areas can have very different abiotic conditions and, hence, host species that are specifically adapted to live there.
Important abiotic factors
Light provides the solar energy required to drive the process of photosynthesis, the major energy source of lentic systems (Brönmark and Hansson 2005). The amount of light received depends upon a combination of several factors. Small ponds may experience shading by surrounding trees, while cloud cover may affect light availability in all systems, regardless of size. Seasonal and diurnal considerations also play a role in light availability because the shallower the angle at which light strikes water, the more light is lost by reflection. This is known as Beers law (Giller and Malmqvist 1998). Once light has penetrated the surface, it may also be scattered by particles suspended in the water column. This scattering decreases the total amount of light as depth increases (Moss 1998, Kalff 2002). Lakes are divided into photic and aphotic regions, the prior receiving sunlight and latter being below the depths of light penetration, making it void of photosynthetic capacity (Brönmark and Hansson 2005). In relation to lake zonation, the pelagic and benthic zones are considered to lie within the photic region, while the profundal zone is in the aphotic region (Brown 1987).
Temperature is an important abiotic factor in lentic ecosystems because most of the biota are poikilolthermic, where internal body temperatures are defined by the surrounding system. Water can be heated or cooled through radiation at the surface and conduction to or from the air and surrounding substrate (Giller and Malmqvist 1998). Shallow ponds often have a continuous temperature gradient from warmer waters at the surface to cooler waters at the bottom. In addition, temperature fluctuations can be very great in these systems, both diurnally and seasonally (Brown 1987).
Temperature regimes are very different in large lakes. In temperate regions, for example, as air temperatures increase, the icy layer formed on the surface of the lake breaks up, leaving the water at approximately 4 °C. This is the temperature at which water has the highest density. As the season progresses, the warmer air temperatures heat the surface waters, making them less dense. The deeper waters remain cool and dense due to reduced light penetration. As the summer begins, two distinct layers become established, with such a large temperature difference between them that they remain stratified. The lowest zone in the lake is the coldest and is called the hypolimnion. The upper warm zone is called the epilimnion. Between these zones is a band of rapid temperature change called the thermocline. During the colder fall season, heat is lost at the surface and the epilimnion cools. When the temperatures of the two zones are close enough, the waters begin to mix again to create a uniform temperature, an event termed lake turnover. In the winter, inverse stratification occurs as water near the surface cools freezes, while warmer, but denser water remains near the bottom. A thermocline is established, and the cycle repeats (Brown 1987, Brönmark and Hansson 2005).