Ocean community warming responses explained by thermal affinities and temperature gradients

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As ocean temperatures rise, species distributions are tracking towards historically cooler regions in line with their thermal affinity1,2. However, different responses of species to warming and changed species interactions make predicting biodiversity redistribution and relative abundance a challenge3,4. Here, we use three decades of fish and plankton survey data to assess how warming changes the relative dominance of warm-affinity and cold-affinity species5,6. Regions with stable temperatures (for example, the Northeast Pacific and Gulf of Mexico) show little change in dominance structure, while areas with warming (for example, the North Atlantic) see strong shifts towards warm-water species dominance. Importantly, communities whose species pools had diverse thermal affinities and a narrower range of thermal tolerance showed greater sensitivity, as anticipated from simulations. The composition of fish communities changed less than expected in regions with strong temperature depth gradients. There, species track temperatures by moving deeper2,7, rather than horizontally, analogous to elevation shifts in land plants8. Temperature thus emerges as a fundamental driver for change in marine systems, with predictable restructuring of communities in the most rapidly warming areas using metrics based on species thermal affinities. The ready and predictable dominance shifts suggest a strong prognosis of resilience to climate change for these communities.

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Fig. 1: Simulated communities illustrating the effects of thermal diversity and thermal range width on the sensitivity of the CTI to temperature change.
Fig. 2: Trends in temperature and the composition of demersal and plankton communities, as shown by CTISST values from 1985–2014.
Fig. 3: Trends in CTISST for Northern Hemisphere demersal and plankton communities from 1985–2014 influenced by near-surface vertical and horizontal temperature gradients.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the publicly accessible repositories listed in Supplementary Table 1. The CTI values and species thermal affinity data that support the findings of this study are available as annual values and 30-year means36 (Supplementary Fig. 7) and as trends37 in 2° × 2° grid cells (Figs. 2 and 3 and Supplementary Fig. 5). Species thermal affinities derived from models and observations are also available38. Source data for the analyses presented are available at the links given in the Supplementary Information files39,40,41,42,43,44,45,46.

Code availability

Source code for the simulation of CTI response to temperature change in Fig. 1 is available at https://github.com/michaeltburrows/ctisimulation.


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M.T.B., B.L.P. and J.G.M. were supported by NERC grant NE/J024082/1. J.G.M. was supported by the ‘Tenure-Track System Promotion Program‘ of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. D.S.S., G.J.E. and R.D.S.-S. were supported by Australian Research Council grants DP170101722, LP150100761 and DP170104240, respectively. M.L.P. was supported by National Science Foundation grants OCE-1426891 and DEB-1616821, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and the NOAA Coastal and Ocean Climate Applications programme. A.E.B. was supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program.

Author information

M.T.B., A.E.B., M.L.P., R.D.S.-S. and E.S.P. conceived the research. M.T.B. and B.L.P. analysed the data. M.T.B., A.E.B., B.L.P. and J.G.M. wrote the first draft. All authors contributed equally to the discussion of ideas and analyses, and commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to Michael T. Burrows.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Diana Bowler, Pieter De Frenne and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–5 and Figs. 1–14

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Burrows, M.T., Bates, A.E., Costello, M.J. et al. Ocean community warming responses explained by thermal affinities and temperature gradients. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 959–963 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0631-5

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