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.

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


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.

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

Prices vary by article type



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

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.


  1. Loreau, M. From Populations to Ecosystems: Theoretical Foundations for a New Ecological Synthesis Vol 46 (Princeton Univ. Press, 2010).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Woodward, G. et al. in Advances in Ecological Research: Ecological Networks Vol 42 (ed Woodward, G.) 71–138 (Elsevier Academic, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  3. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis 1–18 (eds Soloman, S. et. al) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  4. Hunter, M. D. & Price, P. W. Playing chutes and ladders: Heterogeneity and the relative roles of bottom-up and top-down forces in natural communities. Ecology 73, 724–732 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  5. Oksanen, L. & Oksanen, T. The logic and realism of the hypothesis of exploitation ecosystems. Am. Nat. 155, 703–723 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Gauthier, G., Berteaux, D., Krebs, C. J. & Reid, D. Arctic lemmings are not simply food limited—A comment on Oksanen et al. Evol. Ecol. Res. 11, 483–484 (2009).

    Google Scholar 

  7. Duffy, J. E. et al. The functional role of biodiversity in ecosystems: Incorporating trophic complexity. Ecol. Lett. 10, 522–538 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bergengren, J., Waliser, D. & Yung, Y. Ecological sensitivity: A biospheric view of climate change. Climatic Change 107, 433–457 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Montoya, J. M. & Raffaelli, D. Climate change, biotic interactions and ecosystem services. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 365, 2013–2018 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Brown, J. H., Gillooly, J. F., Allen, A. P., Savage, V. M. & West, G. B. Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85, 1771–1789 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Yodzis, P. & Innes, S. Body size and consumer-ressource dynamics. Am. Nat. 139, 1151–1175 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Wootton, J. T. & Emmerson, M. Measurement of interaction strength in nature. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 36, 419–444 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Gaston, K. & Blackburn, T. Pattern and Process in Macroecology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

    Google Scholar 

  14. Rall, B. C., Vucic-Pestic, O., Ehnes, R. B., Emmerson, M. & Brose, U. Temperature, predator–prey interaction strength and population stability. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 2145–2157 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gilg, O. et al. Climate change and the ecology and evolution of Arctic vertebrates. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1249, 166–190 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Legagneux, P. et al. Disentangling trophic relationships in a high Arctic tundra ecosystem through food web modeling. Ecology 93, 1707–1716 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Purves, D. et al. Ecosystems: Time to model all life on Earth. Nature 493, 295–297 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hooper, D. U. et al. Effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning: A consensus of current knowledge. Ecol. Monogr. 75, 3–35 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Nemani, R. R. et al. Climate-driven increases in global terrestrial net primary production from 1982 to 1999. Science 300, 1560–1563 (2003).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Sturm, M., Racine, C. & Tape, K. Climate change—Increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411, 546–547 (2001).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. White, E. P., Ernest, S. K. M., Kerkhoff, A. J. & Enquist, B. J. Relationships between body size and abundance in ecology. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 323–330 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Elmendorf, S. C. et al. Global assessment of experimental climate warming on tundra vegetation: Heterogeneity over space and time. Ecol. Lett. 15, 164–175 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hopcraft, J. G. C., Olff, H. & Sinclair, A. R. E. Herbivores, resources and risks: Alternating regulation along primary environmental gradients in savannas. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 119–128 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hillebrand, H. et al. Herbivore metabolism and stoichiometry each constrain herbivory at different organizational scales across ecosystems. Ecol. Lett. 12, 516–527 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. McKinnon, L. et al. Lower predation risk for migratory birds at high latitudes. Science 327, 326–327 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Brose, U. et al. Climate change in size-structured ecosystems. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 367, 2903–2912 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. De Ruiter, P. C., Neutel, A-M. & Moore, J. C. Energetics, patterns of interaction strengths, and stability in real ecosystems. Science 269, 1257–1260 (1995).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Walker, D. A. et al. The circumpolar Arctic vegetation map. J. Veg. Sci. 16, 267–282 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Christensen, V. & Pauly, D. Ecopath-II—A software for balancing steady-state ecosystem models and calculating network characteristics. Ecol. Model. 61, 169–185 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. May, R. M. Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems Vol. 265 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1973).

    Google Scholar 

Download references


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 and at P.L. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council EnviroNorth post-doc fellowship.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to P. Legagneux or N. Lecomte.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

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