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Arctic ecosystem structure and functioning shaped by climate and herbivore body size

Abstract

Significant progress has been made in our understanding of species-level responses to climate change, but upscaling to entire ecosystems remains a challenge1,2. This task is particularly urgent in the Arctic, where global warming is most pronounced3. Here we report the results of an international collaboration on the direct and indirect effects of climate on the functioning of Arctic terrestrial ecosystems. Our data from seven terrestrial food webs spread along a wide range of latitudes (1,500 km) and climates (Δ mean July temperature = 8.5 °C) across the circumpolar world show the effects of climate on tundra primary production, food-web structure and species interaction strength. The intensity of predation on lower trophic levels increased significantly with temperature, at approximately 4.5% per °C. Temperature also affected trophic interactions through an indirect effect on food-web structure (that is, diversity and number of interactions). Herbivore body size was a major determinant of predator–prey interactions, as interaction strength was positively related to the predator–prey size ratio, with large herbivores mostly escaping predation. There is potential for climate warming to cause a switch from bottom-up to top-down regulation of herbivores. These results are critical to resolving the debate on the regulation of tundra and other terrestrial ecosystems exposed to global change4,5,6.

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Figure 1: Conceptual framework linking temperature and ecosystem functioning.
Figure 2: Consumption rates across Arctic tundra study sites.
Figure 3: Consumption rates and body size in the Arctic tundra.
Figure 4: Interaction strength and body size in the Arctic tundra.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to all field assistants, students and researchers who collaborated on these IPY projects. We thank J. Lefebvre for sharing her knowledge on Ellesmere Island and G. Yannic for moral support. All agencies that funded this work are listed at http://www.cen.ulaval.ca/arcticwolves/en_partners.htm and at http://www.arctic-predators.uit.no/. P.L. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council EnviroNorth post-doc fellowship.

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P.L. helped in designing the research, analysed the data, contributed to the interpretation of the results and writing of the paper. G.G., N.L., D.B., J.B., N.M.S., R.A.I., N.G.Y. and C.J.K. designed the research and contributed to data collection, interpretation of the results and writing of the paper; M-C.C., D.R. and R.I.G.M. contributed to data collection and interpretation of the results; S.L. and M.L. contributed to the interpretation the results and writing of the paper. D.G. analysed the data, contributed to the interpretation of the results and writing of the paper. P.L. and N.L. wrote the Supplementary Information with input from G.G., R.A.I. and N.G.Y.

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Correspondence to P. Legagneux or N. Lecomte.

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Legagneux, P., Gauthier, G., Lecomte, N. et al. Arctic ecosystem structure and functioning shaped by climate and herbivore body size. Nature Clim Change 4, 379–383 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2168

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