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

  • Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 379383 (2014)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate2168
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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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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.

Author information


  1. Département de Biologie and Centre d’études nordiques, 1045 avenue de la Médecine, Pavillon Vachon, Université Laval, Québec, Québec G1V 0A6, Canada

    • P. Legagneux
    • , G. Gauthier
    •  & M-C. Cadieux
  2. Chaire de Recherche du Canada en biodiversité nordique and Centre d’études nordiques, Université du Québec à Rimouski, 300 allée des Ursulines—Rimouski Québec G5L 3A1, Canada

    • P. Legagneux
    • , N. Lecomte
    • , D. Berteaux
    •  & J. Bêty
  3. Department of Arctic and Marine Biology, University of Tromsø, Drammensv. 201, Tromsø N-9037, Norway

    • N. Lecomte
    • , R. A. Ims
    •  & N. G. Yoccoz
  4. Canada Research Chair in Polar and Boreal Ecology, Department of Biology, University of Moncton, 18, av. Antonin-Maillet, Moncton New Brunswick E1A 3E9, Canada

    • N. Lecomte
  5. Arctic Research Centre, Aarhus University, C.F. Møllers Allé 8 DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark

    • N. M. Schmidt
  6. Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Frederiksborgvej 399 DK-4000 Roskilde, Denmark

    • N. M. Schmidt
  7. Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, 39 Harbottle Road, Whitehorse Yukon Y1A 5T2, Canada

    • D. Reid
  8. Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd. Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

    • C. J. Krebs
  9. National Wildlife Research Centre, Environment Canada, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive (Raven Road) Ottawa, Ontario KJA OH3, Canada

    • R. I. G. Morrison
  10. Department of Biology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 232 Elizabeth Avenue St John’s, Newfoundland A1B 3X9, Canada

    • S. J. Leroux
  11. Centre for Biodiversity Theory and Modelling, Station d’Écologie Expérimentale du CNRS, 2 route du CNRS 09200 Moulis, France

    • M. Loreau
  12. Chaire de Recherche du Canada en écologie des écosystèmes continentaux, Université du Québec à Rimouski, 300 allée des Ursulines–Rimouski Québec G5L 3A1, Canada

    • D. Gravel


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to P. Legagneux or N. Lecomte.

Supplementary information