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Reconciling the temperature dependence of respiration across timescales and ecosystem types

Nature volume 487, pages 472476 (26 July 2012) | Download Citation


Ecosystem respiration is the biotic conversion of organic carbon to carbon dioxide by all of the organisms in an ecosystem, including both consumers and primary producers. Respiration exhibits an exponential temperature dependence at the subcellular and individual levels1, but at the ecosystem level respiration can be modified by many variables2,3,4 including community abundance and biomass5, which vary substantially among ecosystems6. Despite its importance for predicting the responses of the biosphere to climate change, it is as yet unknown whether the temperature dependence of ecosystem respiration varies systematically between aquatic and terrestrial environments. Here we use the largest database of respiratory measurements yet compiled to show that the sensitivity of ecosystem respiration to seasonal changes in temperature is remarkably similar for diverse environments encompassing lakes, rivers, estuaries, the open ocean and forested and non-forested terrestrial ecosystems, with an average activation energy similar to that of the respiratory complex3 (approximately 0.65 electronvolts (eV)). By contrast, annual ecosystem respiration shows a substantially greater temperature dependence across aquatic (approximately 0.65 eV) versus terrestrial ecosystems (approximately 0.32 eV) that span broad geographic gradients in temperature. Using a model5 derived from metabolic theory7, these findings can be reconciled by similarities in the biochemical kinetics of metabolism at the subcellular level, and fundamental differences in the importance of other variables besides temperature—such as primary productivity and allochthonous carbon inputs—on the structure of aquatic and terrestrial biota at the community level.

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We wish to thank J. Cole, M. Pace, M. Reichstein and D. Baldocchi for helpful comments that greatly improved the manuscript. M. Mahecha, C. S. Hopkinson, E. Smith, C. Gudasz, C. Solomon, E. Gaiser, E. de Eyto, C.-Y. Chiu, D. Hamilton, S. Hendricks, R. Adrian, K. Rose, D. Bruesewitz, D. Richardson, M. Van de Bogert, FLUXNET and GLEON are gratefully acknowledged for supplying raw data. G.Y.-D., M.T. and G.W. acknowledge the support of the Natural Environment Research Council, UK (grant NE/F004753/1) for financial support. P.A.S. was funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research, Natural Sciences grant 10-085238 and the Danish Centre for Lake Restoration (CLEAR). J.P. acknowledges the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence program (project number 218094) for funding. J.M.M. was supported by a Ramon y Cajal Fellowship (RYC-892 2008-03664), a Ministry of Economy grant (CGL2010-20091) and Generalitat de Catalunya grant (2009SGR142).

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Author notes

    • Gabriel Yvon-Durocher
    •  & Andrew P. Allen

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. School of Biological & Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, London E1 4NS, UK

    • Gabriel Yvon-Durocher
    • , Matteo Dossena
    • , Mark Trimmer
    •  & Guy Woodward
  2. Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, Penryn, Cornwall TR10 9EZ. UK

    • Gabriel Yvon-Durocher
  3. Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation, University of West Florida, 11000 University Parkway, Pensacola, Florida 32514, USA

    • Jane M. Caffrey
  4. European Commission, Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and Sustainability, Ispra I-21027, Italy

    • Alessandro Cescatti
  5. Département des sciences biologiques, Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal, Province of Québec, H2X 3X8, Canada

    • Paul del Giorgio
  6. Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC), Pg. Marítim de la Barceloneta, 37-49 E-08003 Barcelona, Spain

    • Josep M. Gasol
    •  & José M. Montoya
  7. University of Helsinki Department of Forest Sciences, PO Box 27, FI-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland

    • Jukka Pumpanen
  8. Aarhus University, Institute of Bioscience, Frederiksborgvej 399PO Box 358, 4000 Roskilde, Denmark

    • Peter A. Staehr
  9. Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales 2109, Australia

    • Andrew P. Allen


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G.Y.-D. and A.P.A. analysed the data, wrote the manuscript, and devised the research. A.C., J.M.C., M.D., P.d.G., J.M.G., J.M.M., J.P., P.A.S., M.T. and G.W. commented on the manuscript. G.Y.-D., A.P.A., P.d.G., J.M.M. and M.T. discussed ideas. A.C., J.M.C., M.D., P.d.G., J.P., M.T. and P.A.S. provided raw data.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gabriel Yvon-Durocher.

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    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data; Supplementary Figures S1.1, S1.2, S8, S9, S10; Supplementary Tables S1.1, S1.2, S5, S7 and Supplementary References.

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