Marine heatwaves disrupt ecosystem structure and function via altered food webs and energy flux

Publication date
March 13, 2024
Dylan G. E. Gomes, James J. Ruzicka, Lisa G. Crozier, David D. Huff, Richard D. Brodeur, Joshua D. Stewart

The prevalence and intensity of marine heatwaves is increasing globally, disrupting local environmental conditions. The individual and population-level impacts of prolonged heatwaves on marine species have recently been demonstrated, yet whole-ecosystem consequences remain unexplored. We leveraged time series abundance data of 361 taxa, grouped into 86 functional groups, from six long-term surveys, diet information from a new diet database, and previous modeling efforts, to build two food web networks using an extension of the popular Ecopath ecosystem modeling framework, Ecotran. We compare ecosystem models parameterized before and after the onset of recent marine heatwaves to evaluate the cascading effects on ecosystem structure and function in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. While the ecosystem-level contribution (prey) and demand (predators) of most functional groups changed following the heatwaves, gelatinous taxa experienced the largest transformations, underscored by the arrival of northward-expanding pyrosomes. We show altered trophic relationships and energy flux have potentially profound consequences for ecosystem structure and function, and raise concerns for populations of threatened and harvested species.

Nature Communications
California Current