Ocean warming may increase the abundance of marine consumers
Warmer ocean temperatures could mean dramatic shifts in the structure of underwater food webs and the abundance of marine life, according to a new study by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC Coastal Studies Institute and DePauw University. Michael F. Piehler, Program Head in Estuarine Ecology and Human Health at UNC Coastal Studies Institute and an Assistant Professor at the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City, N.C is a study co-author.
Until now, little has been known about how changes in temperatures might affect the total productivity and growth of all marine consumers (such as animals, fungi and bacteria) relative to their prey (including algae and plants). The study, published online Aug. 25, 2009 in the journal PLoS Biology, looked at a simple underwater food chain and how temperature changes affect organisms' growth and metabolism. In warmer temperatures, these processes happen faster. As a result, demands for food and nutrients increase with temperature. Researchers placed tiny zooplankton (consumers in the food chain) and phytoplankton (which are photosynthesizing producers) in small containers and incubated them at different temperatures and in two nutrient scenarios reflecting low and high resource supply conditions for phytoplankton. The results suggest that higher temperatures could lead to an increase in the number of consumers in the ocean, such as zooplankton or fish, but a reduction in the overall mass of living creatures in the sea.
Mary O'Connor, the study's lead author, said the findings have implications for how marine and other ecosystems might respond to climate change.
"Small changes in ocean temperature, like those expected with climate change or even just a warmer summer, have fundamentally different effects on marine consumers and their food supply," said O'Connor, who carried out the research while a graduate student at UNC and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"This means we may be able to understand some important consequences of ocean temperature change before we go out and study temperature effects on every single species," O'Connor said.
"The components of this theory have been around for decades, but I think we are just starting to comprehend the enormous range of processes and patterns in nature that are very strongly influenced by temperature," said John Bruno, Associate Professor of marine sciences at UNC Chapel Hill and a co-author of the study.
Ocean temperature averages about 30 C (86 F) in the tropics and 2 C (35.6 F) in the polar regions, and varies between summer and winter. Climate models predict ocean temperatures will rise between 2 C and 7 C (or between 1 F and 11 F) in different parts of the world in the next 100 years, and increases of 1 C to 4 C (1 F - 9 F) have already been observed. All of these types of changes would affect the food chains of the ocean, O'Connor said.
Other study authors are Dina M. Leech, formerly a postdoctoral researcher at UNC Coastal Studies Institute and now an Assistant Professor at DePauw University; and Andrea Anton, a doctoral student in the UNC Curriculum in Ecology.