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Warming alters energetic structure and function but not resilience of soil food webs


Climate warming is predicted to alter the structure, stability, and functioning of food webs1,2,3,4,5. Yet, despite the importance of soil food webs for energy and nutrient turnover in terrestrial ecosystems, the effects of warming on these food webs—particularly in combination with other global change drivers—are largely unknown. Here, we present results from two complementary field experiments that test the interactive effects of warming with forest canopy disturbance and drought on energy flux in boreal–temperate ecotonal forest soil food webs. The first experiment applied a simultaneous above- and belowground warming treatment (ambient, +1.7 °C, +3.4 °C) to closed-canopy and recently clear-cut forest, simulating common forest disturbance6. The second experiment crossed warming with a summer drought treatment (−40% rainfall) in the clear-cut habitats. We show that warming reduces energy flux to microbes, while forest canopy disturbance and drought facilitates warming-induced increases in energy flux to higher trophic levels and exacerbates the reduction in energy flux to microbes, respectively. Contrary to expectations, we find no change in whole-network resilience to perturbations, but significant losses in ecosystem functioning. Warming thus interacts with forest disturbance and drought, shaping the energetic structure of soil food webs and threatening the provisioning of multiple ecosystem functions in boreal–temperate ecotonal forests.

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B.S. acknowledges the support of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). A.D.B., M.P.T., U.B., B.R. and N.E. acknowledge the support of the German Centre for integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig funded by the German Research Foundation (FZT 118). A.D.B. was funded by the German Research Foundation within the framework of the Jena Experiment (FOR 1451). N.E. acknowledges funding by the German Research Foundation (DFG; Ei 862/1, Ei 862/2). This project also received support from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement no 677232 to N.E.). The B4WarmED project has been funded by the US Department of Energy (Grant No. DE-FG02-07ER64456), College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS), and Wilderness Research Foundation at the University of Minnesota, and the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

Author information

B.S., A.D.B., M.P.T and N.E. designed the study. P.B.R. designed and co-ordinated the B4WarmED experiment. R.L.R. and A.S. designed and implemented the warming and rainfall manipulation system. B.S., M.C., A.S. and N.E. carried out the field and laboratory work. B.S. analysed the data with inputs from A.D.B, M.P.T. and N.E. B.S., A.D.B., M.P.T. and N.E. jointly wrote the first draft, and all other authors contributed substantially to the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Andrew D. Barnes.

Electronic supplementary material

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–11, Supplementary References

  2. Supplementary Data 1

    This table contains plot-level biomass data of the first experiment. Biomasses (mg C m–2) are given for each feeding guild as well as for trophic groups (microbes, herbivores, detritivores and predators), total fauna, and the whole network

  3. Supplementary Data 2

    This table contains plot-level energy flux data of the first experiment. Energy fluxes (g C m–2 d–1) are given for each feeding guild as well as for trophic groups (microbes, herbivores, detritivores and predators), total fauna, and the whole network

  4. Supplementary Data 3

    This table contains plot-level biomass data of the second experiment. Biomasses (mg C m–2) are given for each feeding guild as well as for trophic groups (microbes, herbivores, detritivores and predators), total fauna, and the whole network

  5. Supplementary Data 4

    This table contains plot-level energy flux data of the second experiment. Energy fluxes (g C m–2 d–1) are given for each feeding guild as well as for trophic groups (microbes, herbivores, detritivores and predators), total fauna, and the whole network

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Further reading

Fig. 1: Effects of warming on soil food web structure.
Fig. 2: Effects of warming on energy fluxes in the soil food web.
Fig. 3: Effects of warming, canopy disturbance, and drought on whole network resilience.