Effects of Macroalgae Loss in an Antarctic Marine Food Web: Applying Extinction Thresholds to Food Web Studies


Antarctica is seriously affected by climate change, particularly at the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) where a rapid regional warming is observed. Potter Cove is a WAP fjord at Shetland Islands that constitutes a biodiversity hotspot where over the last years, Potter Cove annual air temperatures averages increased by 0.66 °C, coastal glaciers declined, and suspended particulate matter increased due to ice melting. Macroalgae are the main energy source for all consumers and detritivores of Potter Cove. Some effects of climate change favor pioneer macroalgae species that exploit new ice-free areas and can also decline rates of photosynthesis and intensify competition between species due to the increase of suspended particulate matter. In this study, we evaluated possible consequences of climate change at Potter Cove food web by simulating the extinction of macroalgae and detritus using a topological approach with thresholds of extinction. Thresholds represent the minimum number of incoming links necessary for species’ survival. When we simulated the extinctions of macroalgae species at random, a threshold of extinction beyond 50% was necessary to obtain a significant number of secondary extinctions, while with a 75% threshold a real collapse of the food web occurred. Our results indicate that Potter Cove food web is relative robust to macroalgae extinction. This is dramatically different from what has been found in other food webs, where the reduction of 10% in prey intake caused a disproportionate increase of secondary extinctions. Robustness of the Potter Cove food web was mediated by omnivory and redundancy, which had an important relevance in this food web. When we eliminated larger-biomass species more secondary extinctions occurred, a similar response was observed when more connected species were deleted, yet there was no correlation between species of larger-biomass and high-degree. This similarity could be explained because both criteria involved key species that produced an emerging effect on the food web. In this way, large-biomass and high-degree species could be acting as source for species with few trophic interactions or low redundancy. Based on this work, we expect the Potter Cove food web to be robust to changes in macroalgae species caused by climate change until a high threshold of stress is reached, and then negative effects are expected to spread through the entire food web leading to its collapse.

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