Letter | Published:

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

Nature Climate Change volume 4, pages 379383 (2014) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

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

  2. 2.

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

  3. 3.

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

  4. 4.

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

  5. 5.

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

  6. 6.

    , , & Arctic lemmings are not simply food limited—A comment on Oksanen et al. Evol. Ecol. Res. 11, 483–484 (2009).

  7. 7.

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

  8. 8.

    , & Ecological sensitivity: A biospheric view of climate change. Climatic Change 107, 433–457 (2011).

  9. 9.

    & Climate change, biotic interactions and ecosystem services. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 365, 2013–2018 (2010).

  10. 10.

    , , , & Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85, 1771–1789 (2004).

  11. 11.

    & Body size and consumer-ressource dynamics. Am. Nat. 139, 1151–1175 (1992).

  12. 12.

    & Measurement of interaction strength in nature. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 36, 419–444 (2005).

  13. 13.

    & Pattern and Process in Macroecology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

  14. 14.

    , , , & Temperature, predator–prey interaction strength and population stability. Glob. Change Biol. 16, 2145–2157 (2010).

  15. 15.

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

  16. 16.

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

  17. 17.

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

  18. 18.

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

  19. 19.

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

  20. 20.

    , & Climate change—Increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411, 546–547 (2001).

  21. 21.

    , , & Relationships between body size and abundance in ecology. Trends Ecol. Evol. 22, 323–330 (2007).

  22. 22.

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

  23. 23.

    , & Herbivores, resources and risks: Alternating regulation along primary environmental gradients in savannas. Trends Ecol. Evol. 25, 119–128 (2010).

  24. 24.

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

  25. 25.

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

  26. 26.

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

  27. 27.

    , & Energetics, patterns of interaction strengths, and stability in real ecosystems. Science 269, 1257–1260 (1995).

  28. 28.

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

  29. 29.

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

  30. 30.

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

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 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


  1. Search for P. Legagneux in:

  2. Search for G. Gauthier in:

  3. Search for N. Lecomte in:

  4. Search for N. M. Schmidt in:

  5. Search for D. Reid in:

  6. Search for M-C. Cadieux in:

  7. Search for D. Berteaux in:

  8. Search for J. Bêty in:

  9. Search for C. J. Krebs in:

  10. Search for R. A. Ims in:

  11. Search for N. G. Yoccoz in:

  12. Search for R. I. G. Morrison in:

  13. Search for S. J. Leroux in:

  14. Search for M. Loreau in:

  15. Search for D. Gravel in:


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

About this article

Publication history






Further reading