Letter | Published:

Global change drives modern plankton communities away from the pre-industrial state

Abstract

The ocean—the Earth’s largest ecosystem—is increasingly affected by anthropogenic climate change1,2. Large and globally consistent shifts have been detected in species phenology, range extension and community composition in marine ecosystems3,4,5. However, despite evidence for ongoing change, it remains unknown whether marine ecosystems have entered an Anthropocene6 state beyond the natural decadal to centennial variability. This is because most observational time series lack a long-term baseline, and the few time series that extend back into the pre-industrial era have limited spatial coverage7,8. Here we use the unique potential of the sedimentary record of planktonic foraminifera—ubiquitous marine zooplankton—to provide a global pre-industrial baseline for the composition of modern species communities. We use a global compilation of 3,774 seafloor-derived planktonic foraminifera communities of pre-industrial age9 and compare these with communities from sediment-trap time series that have sampled plankton flux since ad 1978 (33 sites, 87 observation years). We find that the Anthropocene assemblages differ from their pre-industrial counterparts in proportion to the historical change in temperature. We observe community changes towards warmer or cooler compositions that are consistent with historical changes in temperature in 85% of the cases. These observations not only confirm the existing evidence for changes in marine zooplankton communities in historical times, but also demonstrate that Anthropocene communities of a globally distributed zooplankton group systematically differ from their unperturbed pre-industrial state.

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Data availability

The ForCenS core top planktonic foraminifera dataset is available at Pangaea (https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.873570) and the HadISST data are available from the UK Met Office (https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/hadobs/hadisst/). NOAA ERSST v.5 data were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD (https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/psd/). Taxonomically harmonized shell flux data are available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2638013.

Code availability

Code is available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2638013.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. Reuter for help with foraminifera analysis and acknowledge funding by the Volkswagen Stiftung for the MarBAS (Marine Biodiversität—Analyse über zeitliche und räumliche Skalen) project as well as by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) through Germany’s Excellence Strategy (EXC-2077, grant no 390741603). M.K. was funded through DFG-Research Center/Cluster of Excellence ‘The Ocean in the Earth System’.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks Andrew J. Fraass, Anthony Richardson and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

L.J. and M.K. designed research. L.J. compiled and analysed the data. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Lukas Jonkers.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Pre-industrial age of the sedimentary samples.

    Mean age in years of core top sediment estimate using the depth solution of a previous study41 (contours). The grey box denotes the likely average ages of the core top sediments based on our best estimate of sediment accumulation rate (in cm per 1,000 years (kyr)) and bioturbation depth. Irrespective of the sampling date (mostly pre-1980), the average sedimentary species composition predates the Anthropocene.

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Linear regression between dissimilarity and latitudinal distance in the sedimentary species assemblages.

    The relationship (shown in red) is used to estimate the latitudinal displacement based on the dissimilarity between the modern and pre-industrial species composition. Example for time series S47 from the south of New Zealand (Extended Data Table 1).

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 Insensitivity of planktonic foraminifera assemblage change to size fraction.

    The direction of change for planktonic foraminifera species communities (warming or cooling) was inferred from sediment-trap time series for which the samples were larger than 125 μm and larger than 150 μm. Colours and symbols are as in Fig. 3b. W and C indicate warming and cooling, respectively, with the first letter indicating the historical change and the second the change as indicated by the species composition. Both small and large shell sizes are dominated by a change in the species community that is consistent with the direction of historical change in temperatures. The observed pattern is thus insensitive to the inclusion of sediment-trap time series that used a slightly smaller size fraction than the sediment samples.

  4. Extended Data Fig. 4 Assessing uncertainty in the historical change in temperatures by comparing the HadISST and ERSST temperature products.

    a, Comparison of the relationships between the historical change in temperature and the difference between the modern and sedimentary species composition (based on linear regression weighted to the duration of the time series; see also Fig. 2a). The relationship has a similar slope for both sea-surface temperature products, even though the relationship based on ERSST data has a larger uncertainty. Shaded error envelopes show 95% confidence intervals of the regression. b, Histograms of consistency and direction of changes in the species communities (Fig. 3a). The pattern of change is broadly similar for both products, which indicates that although the observations are to some degree sensitive to the uncertainty in the historical change in temperatures, they are largely consistent between the two datasets.

  5. Extended Data Table 1 Sediment-trap time series used to determine modern species compositions

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Fig. 1: Concept of the comparison between Anthropocene and pre-industrial communities.
Fig. 2: Changes in planktonic foraminifera communities in response to Anthropocene sea-surface temperature change.
Fig. 3: Global planktonic foraminifera communities change consistently with historical temperature trends.
Fig. 4: Robustness of the sign of change in planktonic foraminifera community composition.
Extended Data Fig. 1: Pre-industrial age of the sedimentary samples.
Extended Data Fig. 2: Linear regression between dissimilarity and latitudinal distance in the sedimentary species assemblages.
Extended Data Fig. 3: Insensitivity of planktonic foraminifera assemblage change to size fraction.
Extended Data Fig. 4: Assessing uncertainty in the historical change in temperatures by comparing the HadISST and ERSST temperature products.

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