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Clam feeding plasticity reduces herbivore vulnerability to ocean warming and acidification


Ocean warming and acidification affect species populations, but how interactions within communities are affected and how this translates into ecosystem functioning and resilience remain poorly understood. Here we demonstrate that experimental ocean warming and acidification significantly alters the interaction network among porewater nutrients, primary producers, herbivores and burrowing invertebrates in a seafloor sediment community, and is linked to behavioural plasticity in the clam Scrobicularia plana. Warming and acidification induced a shift in the clam’s feeding mode from predominantly suspension feeding under ambient conditions to deposit feeding with cascading effects on nutrient supply to primary producers. Surface-dwelling invertebrates were more tolerant to warming and acidification in the presence of S. plana, most probably due to the stimulatory effect of the clam on their microalgal food resources. This study demonstrates that predictions of population resilience to climate change require consideration of non-lethal effects such as behavioural changes of key species.

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Fig. 1: Effects of warming and acidification on clam feeding behaviour as revealed from hydraulic porewater signatures.
Fig. 2: Effects of combined warming and acidification and S. plana on sediment abiotic properties.
Fig. 3: Effects of combined warming and acidification and S. plana on sediment fauna.
Fig. 4: Changes in ecosystem interaction networks associated with combined warming and acidification.

Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are available at the Marine Data Archive ( via or from the corresponding author on reasonable request. Source data for Figs. 13 and Extended Data Fig. 1 are provided with the paper.


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The research leading to the results presented in this publication was carried out with infrastructure funded by EMBRC Belgium - FWO project GOH3817N. This work was co-funded by a MARES Joint Doctorate programme grant (2012-1720/001-001-EMJD) to E.Z.O. C.V.C. acknowledges the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) for his postdoctoral research fellow grant (FWO-11.2.380.11.N.00). Pressure sensor development was funded by grants from the US Office of Naval Research (N00014-0310352) and the US National Science Foundation (OCE 0928002) to S.A.W. and D.S.W. Additional funding for this project was obtained from the Special Research Fund (BOF) from Ghent University through GOA projects 01GA1911W and 01G02617. We acknowledge Flanders Marine Institute (VLIZ) for the total alkalinity measurements.

Author information




C.V.C. and E.Z.O. conceived and carried out the experiments. C.V.C., E.Z.O., M.B., E.A. and S.A.W. analysed the data. C.V.C., M.B., D.S.W., T.M. and S.A.W. contributed materials. C.V.C. and E.Z.O. co-wrote the manuscript. All authors proofread the manuscript, provided input and approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Carl Van Colen.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Paul Snelgrove, Cristian Vargas and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2 and Tables 1–4.

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Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Numerical data.

Source Data Fig. 2

Numerical data.

Source Data Fig. 3

Numerical data.

Source Data Extended Data Fig. 1

Numerical data.

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Van Colen, C., Ong, E.Z., Briffa, M. et al. Clam feeding plasticity reduces herbivore vulnerability to ocean warming and acidification. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 162–166 (2020).

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