Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Food-chain length alters community responses to global change in aquatic systems

This article has been updated


Synergies between large-scale environmental changes, such as climate change1 and increased humic content (brownification)2, will have a considerable impact on future aquatic ecosystems. On the basis of modelling, monitoring and experimental data, we demonstrate that community responses to global change are determined by food-chain length and that the top trophic level, and every second level below, will benefit from climate change, whereas the levels in between will suffer. Hence, phytoplankton, and thereby algal blooms, will benefit from climate change in three-, but not in two-trophic-level systems. Moreover, we show that both phytoplankton (resource) and zooplankton (consumer) advance their spring peak abundances similarly in response to a 3 °C temperature increase; that is, there is no support for a consumer/resource mismatch in a future climate scenario. However, in contrast to other taxa, cyanobacteria—known as toxin-producing nuisance phytoplankton3—benefit from a higher temperature and humic content irrespective of the food-chain composition. Our results are mirrored in natural ecosystems. By mechanistically merging present food-chain theory with large-scale environmental and climate changes, we provide a powerful framework for predicting and understanding future aquatic ecosystems and their provision of ecosystem services and water resources.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Effect sizes for phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish.
Figure 2: Temporal dynamics in phytoplankton biomass, zooplankton and Microcystis.
Figure 3: Effect sizes for Microcystis.

Change history

  • 18 September 2012

    In the version of this Letter originally published online, the authors Alice Nicolle (A.N.) and P. Anders Nilsson (P.A.N.) were incorrectly credited in the Author contributions section; the correct author contributions should have been “L-A.H., C.B. and A.N. designed the study; A.N., L-A.H., P.H., A.P., C.B., J.B., E.K. and W.G. performed the study; L-A.H., A.N., P.A.N. and P.H. analysed the data…” These errors have now been corrected in all versions of the Letter.


  1. Christensen, J. H. et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Monteith, D. T. et al. Dissolved organic carbon trends resulting from changes in atmospheric deposition chemistry. Nature 450, 537–539 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Brookes, J. D. & Carey, C. C. Resilience to blooms. Science 333, 46–47 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Moss, B. et al. How important is climate? Effects of warming, nutrient addition and fish on phytoplankton in shallow lake microcosms. J. Appl. Ecol. 40, 782–792 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Petchey, O. L., McPhearson, P. T., Casey, T. M. & Morin, P. J. Environmental warming alters food-web structure and ecosystem function. Nature 402, 69–72 (1999).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Jansson, M., Persson, L., De Roos, A. M., Jones, R. I. & Tranvik, L. J. Terrestrial carbon and intraspecific size-variation shape lake ecosystems. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 316–322 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Graham, M. D. & Vinebrooke, R. D. Extreme weather events alter planktonic communities in boreal lakes. Limnol. Oceanogr. 54, 2481–2492 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Cushing, D. H. Plankton production and year-class strength in fish populations—an update of the match mismatch hypothesis. Adv. Mar. Biol. 26, 249–293 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Kosten, S. et al. Warmer climates boost cyanobacterial dominance in shallow lakes. Glob. Change Biol. 18, 118–126 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Lappalainen, J., Tarkan, A. S. & Harrod, C. A meta-analysis of latitudinal variations in life-history traits of roach, Rutilus rutilus, over its geographical range: Linear or non-linear relationships? Freshwat. Biol. 53, 1491–1501 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Hansson, L-A. et al. Consequences of fish predation, migration and juvenile ontogeny on zooplankton spring dynamics. Limnol. Oceanogr. 52, 696–706 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Sarnelle, O., Gustafsson, S. & Hansson, L-A. Effects of cyanobacteria on fitness components of the herbivore Daphnia. J. Plankton Res. 32, 471–477 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Jeppesen, E. et al. Climate change effects on runoff, catchment phosphorus loading and lake ecological state, and potential adaptations. J. Environ. Qual. 38, 1930–1941 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Winder, M. & Schindler, D. E. Climate change uncouples trophic interactions in an aquatic ecosystem. Ecology 85, 2100–2106 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Adrian, R., Wilhelm, S. & Gerten, D. Life-history traits of lake plankton species may govern their phenological response to climate warming. Glob. Change Biol. 12, 652–661 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Nicolle, A. et al. Predicted warming and browning affect timing and magnitude of plankton phenological events in lakes: A mesocosm study. Freshwat. Biol. 57, 684–695 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Gillooly, J. F., Charnov, E. L., West, G. B., Savage, V. M. & Brown, J. H. Effects of size and temperature on developmental time. Nature 417, 70–73 (2002).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hairston, N. G., Smith, F. E. & Slobodkin, L. B. Community structure, population control, and competition. Am. Nat. 94, 421–425 (1960).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Carpenter, S. R., Kitchell, J. F. & Hodgson, J. R. Cascading trophic interactions and lake productivity: Fish predation and herbivory can regulate lake ecosystem. Bioscience 35, 634–639 (1985).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Daufresne, M., Lengfellner, K. & Sommer, U. Global warming benefits the small in aquatic ecosystems. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 12788–12793 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Reich, P. B. et al. Plant diversity enhances ecosystem responses to elevated CO2 and nitrogen deposition. Nature 410, 809–812 (2001).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Suttle, K. B., Thomsen, M. A. & Power, M. E. Species interaction reverse grassland responses to changing climate. Science 315, 640–642 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Estes, J. A. et al. Trophic downgrading of planet earth. Science 333, 301–306 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Carpenter, S. Microcosm experiments have limited relevance for community and ecosystem ecology. Ecology 77, 677–680 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Spivak, A. C., Vanni, M. J. & Mette, E. M. Moving on up: Can results from simple aquatic mesocosm experiments be applied across broad spatial scales? Freshwat. Biol 56, 279–291 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Gerten, D. & Adrian, R. Climate-driven changes in spring plankton dynamics and the sensitivity of shallow polymictic lakes to the North Atlantic Oscillation. Limnol. Oceanogr. 45, 1058–1066 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Straile, D. Meteorological forcing of plankton dynamics in a large and deep continental European lake. Oecologia 122, 44–50 (2000).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Gyllström, M. et al. Interactions between climate, predation and productivity in shaping the zooplankton communities of shallow lakes. Limnol. Oceanogr. 50, 2008–2021 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Paine, R. T. Food Webs—linkage, interaction strength and community infrastructure—the 3rd Tansley Lecture. J. Anim. Ecol. 49, 667–685 (1980).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Cohen, J. Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioural Sciences 2nd edn (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1988).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


The study was financed by the Swedish Research Council for the Environment and Spatial Planning (Formas), and the Swedish Research Council (VR) through the Centre for Animal Movement Research (CAnMove) supported by a Linnaeus grant (349-2007-8690). This is a contribution from the strategic research area Biodiversity and Ecosystems in a Changing Climate. J. and A. Bäckman provided the temperature system. L. Hansson assisted in designing the figures and B. Chapman kindly checked the language.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



L-A.H., C.B. and A.N. designed the study; A.N., L-A.H., P.H., A.P., C.B., J.B., E.K. and W.G. performed the study; L-A.H., A.N., P.A.N. and P.H. analysed the data; L-A.H. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lars-Anders Hansson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 220 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hansson, LA., Nicolle, A., Granéli, W. et al. Food-chain length alters community responses to global change in aquatic systems. Nature Clim Change 3, 228–233 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing