Explaining ecological shifts: the roles of temperature and primary production in the long-term dynamics of benthic faunal composition
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Predicting the ecological consequences of environmental change requires that we can identify the drivers of long-term ecological variation. Biological assemblages can exhibit abrupt deviations from temporal trends, potentially resulting in irreversible shifts in species composition over short periods of time. Such dynamics are hypothesised to occur as gradual forcing eventually causes biological thresholds to be crossed, but could also be explained by biota simply tracking abrupt changes to their environment. Here, we modelled temporal variation in a North Sea benthic faunal assemblage over a 40-year period (1972–2012) to test for changes to temporal trends of biota and determine whether they could be explained by underlying patterns in sea temperature and primary production. These extrinsic factors were postulated to influence community dynamics through their roles in determining and sustaining the metabolic demands of organisms, respectively. A subset of mainly large and long-lived taxa (those loaded on the first principal component of taxa densities) exhibited two significant changes to their temporal trends, which culminated in a shift in assemblage composition. These changes were explained by an increase in pelagic primary production, and hence detrital food input to the seabed, but were unrelated to variation in sea temperature. A second subset of mainly small and short-lived taxa (those loaded on the second principal component) did not experience any significant changes to their temporal trends, as enhanced pelagic primary production appeared to mitigate the impact of warming on these organisms. Our results suggest that abrupt ecological shifts can occur as biota track underlying variation in extrinsic factors, in this case primary production. Changes to the structure of ecosystems may therefore be predictable based on environmental change projections.
Environmental Sciences not elsewhere classified