Functional loss in herbivores drives runaway expansion of weedy algae in a near-future ocean

Highlights

• Elevated CO2 and warming increased productivity of turf algae.

• Elevated CO2 increased per capita feeding rates of gastropods.

• Ocean warming reduced grazer diversity, density, and biomass.

• As a result, ocean warming drove a fourfold expansion of weedy algal species.

Abstract

The ability of a community to absorb environmental change without undergoing structural modification is a hallmark of ecological resistance. The recognition that species interactions can stabilize community processes has led to the idea that the effects of climate change may be less than what most considerations currently allow. We tested whether herbivory can compensate for the expansion of weedy algae triggered by CO2 enrichment and warming. Using a six-month mesocosm experiment, we show that increasing per capita herbivory by gastropods absorbs the boosted effects of CO2 enrichment on algal production in temperate systems of weak to moderate herbivory. However, under the combined effects of acidification and warming this compensatory effect was eroded by reducing the diversity, density and biomass of herbivores. This loss of functionality combined with boosted primary productivity drove a fourfold expansion of weedy algal species. Our results demonstrate capacity to buffer ecosystems against CO2 enrichment, but loss of this capacity through ocean warming either in isolation or combined with CO2, driving significant algal turf expansion. Identifying compensatory processes and the circumstances under which they prevail could potentially help manage the impacts of ocean warming and acidification, which are further amplified by local disturbances such as habitat loss and herbivore over-exploitation.

Ferreira C. M., Nagelkerken I., Goldenberg S. U., Walden G., Leung J. Y. S. & Connell S. D., in press. Functional loss in herbivores drives runaway expansion of weedy algae in a near-future ocean. Science of The Total Environment. Article (subscription required).

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