Climate change effects on marine species across trophic levels

Climate change and anthropogenic activities are producing a range of new selection pressures, both abiotic and biotic, on marine organisms. While there are numerous studies that have investigated the response of individual marine organisms to climate change, few studies have focused on differences in organismal responses across trophic levels. Such trophic differences in response to climate change may disrupt ecological interactions and thereby threaten marine ecosystem function. In addition, predation is known as a strong driver that impacts individuals and populations. Despite this, we still do not have a comprehensive understanding of how different trophic levels respond to climate change stressors, predation and their combined effects in marine ecosystems.

The main focus of this thesis is to identify whether marine trophic levels respond differently to climatic stressors and predation. To explore these questions, I have used a combination of traditional mesocosm experiments, together with a statistical method called meta-analysis. I initiated the research by study the responses of marine gastropods at two trophic levels to ocean acidification and predation using long-term mesocosm experiments together with a gastropod-specific meta-analyses. I focused on the amount of phenotypic plasticity in morphological traits of snails when exposed to the two stressors. In order to generalise and test these assumptions among a greater number of marine taxa, I used the meta-analysis approach to investigate the effects of ocean acidification and warming, as well as their combined effects on four marine trophic levels. Finally, to study the individual and combined effects of ocean acidification and predation with respect to inducible defences, I again applied a mesocosm experiment and used blue mussels as a model species.

By using long-term mesocosm experiments and the gastropod-specific meta-analysis on marine gastropods from two trophic levels, I showed that these trophic levels varied in their responses to both ocean acidification and predation. Gastropods at lower trophic levels exhibited greater phenotypic plasticity against predation, while those from higher trophic levels showed stronger tolerance to ocean acidification. Next, by using a meta-analysis, including a large number of species and taxa, examining the effects of ocean acidification and warming, I revealed that top-predators and primary producers were most tolerant to ocean acidification compared to other trophic levels. Herbivores on the other hand, were the most vulnerable trophic level against abiotic stress. Again, using the meta-analysis approach, but this time incorporating only factorial experimental data that included the interactive effects of ocean acidification and ocean warming, I showed that higher trophic levels again were the most tolerant trophic level, and herbivores being most sensitive, with respect to the combined effect of the two stressors. Contrary to previous discussions in the literature concerning multiple climate-related stressors, antagonistic and additive effects occurred most frequently, while synergistic effects were less common and which decreased with increasing trophic rank. Finally, by conducting a fully-factorial experiment using blue mussels, I found that mussels with previous experience contact with predator has developed greater inducible defences than ones without previous experience. However, levels of ocean acidification may mask predator cues, or obstruct shell material, and consequently disrupt blue mussels inducible defence from crab predation.

In summary, marine trophic levels respond differently to both biotic and climatic stressors. Higher trophic levels, together with primary producers, were often more robust against abiotic stress and may therefore be better prepared for future oceans compare species from lower trophic levels. These results may provide vital information for: implementing effective climate change mitigation, to understand which stressors to act on, and when and where to intervene for prioritizing conservation actions.

Hu N., 2023. Climate change effects on marine species across trophic levels. PhD thesis, Lund University, 49 p. Thesis.

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