HCNSO Student Articles


Extreme Temperatures, Foundation Species, and Abrupt Ecosystem Change: An Example from an Iconic Seagrass Ecosystem

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Amphibolis antarctica, Animal-borne video, Chelonia mydas, Climate change, Disturbance, Extreme events, Green turtle, Heat Wave

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Global Change Biology






Extreme climatic events can trigger abrupt and often lasting change in ecosystems via the reduction or elimination of foundation (i.e., habitat-forming) species. However, while the frequency/intensity of extreme events is predicted to increase under climate change, the impact of these events on many foundation species and the ecosystems they support remains poorly understood. Here, we use the iconic seagrass meadows of Shark Bay, Western Australia – a relatively pristine subtropical embayment whose dominant, canopy-forming seagrass, Amphibolis antarctica, is a temperate species growing near its low-latitude range limit – as a model system to investigate the impacts of extreme temperatures on ecosystems supported by thermally sensitive foundation species in a changing climate. Following an unprecedented marine heat wave in late summer 2010/11, A. antarctica experienced catastrophic (>90%) dieback in several regions of Shark Bay. Animal-borne video footage taken from the perspective of resident, seagrass-associated megafauna (sea turtles) revealed severe habitat degradation after the event compared with a decade earlier. This reduction in habitat quality corresponded with a decline in the health status of largely herbivorous green turtles (Chelonia mydas) in the 2 years following the heat wave, providing evidence of long-term, community-level impacts of the event. Based on these findings, and similar examples from diverse ecosystems, we argue that a generalized framework for assessing the vulnerability of ecosystems to abrupt change associated with the loss of foundation species is needed to accurately predict ecosystem trajectories in a changing climate. This includes seagrass meadows, which have received relatively little attention in this context. Novel research and monitoring methods, such as the analysis of habitat and environmental data from animal-borne video and data-logging systems, can make an important contribution to this framework.

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