Trophic structure alters consequences of environmental warming

6 June 2018

Rudolf, Volker; Roman, Amber

Climate warming can directly affect traits and demographic rates of organisms. However, individuals are embedded in complex networks of ecological interactions with other members of the community, allowing for a range of direct and indirect effects that depend on the trophic structure of the community. Here we show that effects of warming (i.e. increase in mean temperature) on a given species can strongly depend on the community context and trophic complexity of the system. Specifically, we manipulated the presence/ absence of two competing tadpole species and their dragonfly predators to simulate different food webs of increasing complexity that were exposed to ambient or warmed conditions. We found that warming dramatically reduced herbivore (tadpole) survival in the absence of strong interspecific competition and predation, but it had no measureable effect on demographic rates on the dominant competitor in more complex communities where it was exposed to interspecific competition and predation. Conversely, our results also indicate that warming reduced the strength of interspecific competition and predation in our system. These results suggest that trophic complexity could potentially buffer climate change effects on populations and emphasize that we often cannot predict the effects of changes in abiotic conditions on a given population without accounting for the community context.