Cascading effects of climate change on plankton community structure

Plankton communities account for at least half of global primary production and play a key role in the global carbon cycle. Warming and acidification may alter the interaction chains in these communities from the bottom and top of the food web. Yet, the relative importance of these potentially complex interactions has not yet been quantified. Here, we examine the isolated and combined effects of warming, acidification, and reductions in phytoplankton and predator abundances in a series of factorial experiments. We find that warming directly impacts the top of the food web, but that the intermediate trophic groups are more strongly influenced by indirect effects mediated by altered top-down interactions. Direct manipulations of predator and phytoplankton abundance reveal similar strong top-down interactions following top predator decline. A meta-analysis of published experiments further supports the conclusion that warming has stronger direct impacts on the top and bottom of the food web rather than the intermediate trophic groups, with important differences between freshwater and marine plankton communities. Our results reveal that the trophic effect of warming cascading down from the top of the plankton food web is a powerful agent of global change.

Murphy G. E. P., Romanuk T. N. & Worm B., in press. Cascading effects of climate change on plankton community structure. Ecology and Evolution. Article.

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