Ocean acidification may slow the pace of tropicalization of temperate fish communities


Poleward range extensions by warm-adapted sea urchins are switching temperate marine ecosystems from kelp-dominated to barren-dominated systems that favour the establishment of range-extending tropical fishes. Yet, such tropicalization may be buffered by ocean acidification, which reduces urchin grazing performance and the urchin barrens that tropical range-extending fishes prefer. Using ecosystems experiencing natural warming and acidification, we show that ocean acidification could buffer warming-facilitated tropicalization by reducing urchin populations (by 87%) and inhibiting the formation of barrens. This buffering effect of CO2 enrichment was observed at natural CO2 vents that are associated with a shift from a barren-dominated to a turf-dominated state, which we found is less favourable to tropical fishes. Together, these observations suggest that ocean acidification may buffer the tropicalization effect of ocean warming against urchin barren formation via multiple processes (fewer urchins and barrens) and consequently slow the increasing rate of tropicalization of temperate fish communities.

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Fig. 1: Schematic depicting the potential direct, indirect, negative and positive effects of ocean warming and ocean acidification on sea urchin-induced habitat phase shifts and the cascading effects on species richness of range-extending tropical fishes in temperate ecosystems.
Fig. 2: Structure of fish assemblages across different coastal habitats, showing urchin barrens as a key habitat for tropical and temperate fish assemblages while kelp habitat is avoided by tropical fishes.
Fig. 3: CAP ordination based on Bray–Curtis distance, showing the correlation between trophic functional groups of range-extending tropical and local temperate fish assemblages, respectively, with temperate reef habitats of south-eastern Australia.
Fig. 4: Linear regressions showing the relationships between seawater pH, sea urchin density and barren size.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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We thank K. Kingsbury, M. Sasaki and M. Krutz for logistic support in the field. This project was funded by Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project DP170101722 to I.N. and D.J.B. Additional financial support was provided by an ARC Future Fellowship to I.N. (grant number FT120100183), an ARC Discovery Project to S.D.C. (grant number DP150104263) and a grant from the Environment Institute (University of Adelaide).

Author information




E.O.C.C., I.N., D.J.B. and S.D.C. conceived of and designed the study. E.O.C.C. and C.M.F. collected the data. E.O.C.C. analysed the data. E.O.C.C., I.N., D.J.B. and S.D.C. wrote the article.

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Correspondence to Ivan Nagelkerken.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Conceptual models of hysteresis under different climate change stressors.

Regime shifts from kelp forests (green solid lines) to alternative turf and barren-dominated states (orange and pink solid lines) and the occurrence of hysteresis under different climate change scenarios: (a) ocean warming12,101, (b) ocean acidification16, (c) urchin overgrazing3,102, and (d) all three stressors combined (present study). When the stressors are strong enough, and ecosystem state 1 passes beyond the tipping point (T1), a discontinuous critical transition occurs from an unstable equilibrium (dashed line) to the alternative stable state 2 (degradation) (downward black arrows). However, if stressor levels are then reduced, a hysteresis occurs because the opposing forces fail to push the ecosystem to return to its original state. The recovery to state 1 is only possible if the magnitude of the stressors is reduced to a much lower level (T2) (upward black arrows) than that of the tipping point during the degradation. Adapted from Scheffer103 and Jax104.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Tropicalisation hotspot and CO2 vent study areas.

Map showing the three tropicalisation hotspots in Sydney (Australia) where tropical and temperate fish communities were surveyed, and the CO2 vents at White Island (New Zealand) where the effects of elevated CO2 on fish communities and sea-urchins were investigated.

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Supplementary Figs. 1–6 and Tables 1–7.

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Coni, E.O.C., Nagelkerken, I., Ferreira, C.M. et al. Ocean acidification may slow the pace of tropicalization of temperate fish communities. Nat. Clim. Chang. (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-00980-w

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