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Concept: Ecosystem


Climate change and fisheries are transforming the oceans, but we lack a complete understanding of their ecological impact [1-3]. Environmental degradation can cause maladaptive habitat selection, inducing ecological traps with profound consequences for biodiversity [4-6]. However, whether ecological traps operate in marine systems is unclear [7]. Large marine vertebrates may be vulnerable to ecological traps [6], but their broad-scale movements and complex life histories obscure the population-level consequences of habitat selection [8, 9]. We satellite tracked postnatal dispersal in African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) from eight sites across their breeding range to test whether they have become ecologically trapped in the degraded Benguela ecosystem. Bayesian state-space and habitat models show that penguins traversed thousands of square kilometers to areas of low sea surface temperatures (14.5°C-17.5°C) and high chlorophyll-a (∼11 mg m(-3)). These were once reliable cues for prey-rich waters, but climate change and industrial fishing have depleted forage fish stocks in this system [10, 11]. Juvenile penguin survival is low in populations selecting degraded areas, and Bayesian projection models suggest that breeding numbers are ∼50% lower than if non-impacted habitats were used, revealing the extent and effect of a marine ecological trap for the first time. These cascading impacts of localized forage fish depletion-unobserved in studies on adults-were only elucidated via broad-scale movement and demographic data on juveniles. Our results support suspending fishing when prey biomass drops below critical thresholds [12, 13] and suggest that mitigation of marine ecological traps will require matching conservation action to the scale of ecological processes [14].

Concepts: Biodiversity, Demography, Fish, Ecology, Climate, Ecosystem, Ocean, Sea surface temperature


Ongoing climate change can alter conditions for plant growth, in turn affecting ecological and social systems. While there have been considerable advances in understanding the physical aspects of climate change, comprehensive analyses integrating climate, biological, and social sciences are less common. Here we use climate projections under alternative mitigation scenarios to show how changes in environmental variables that limit plant growth could impact ecosystems and people. We show that although the global mean number of days above freezing will increase by up to 7% by 2100 under “business as usual” (representative concentration pathway [RCP] 8.5), suitable growing days will actually decrease globally by up to 11% when other climatic variables that limit plant growth are considered (i.e., temperature, water availability, and solar radiation). Areas in Russia, China, and Canada are projected to gain suitable plant growing days, but the rest of the world will experience losses. Notably, tropical areas could lose up to 200 suitable plant growing days per year. These changes will impact most of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems, potentially triggering climate feedbacks. Human populations will also be affected, with up to ~2,100 million of the poorest people in the world (~30% of the world’s population) highly vulnerable to changes in the supply of plant-related goods and services. These impacts will be spatially variable, indicating regions where adaptations will be necessary. Changes in suitable plant growing days are projected to be less severe under strong and moderate mitigation scenarios (i.e., RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5), underscoring the importance of reducing emissions to avoid such disproportionate impacts on ecosystems and people.

Concepts: Population, Ecology, Earth, Sun, Climate, Ecosystem, Climate change, World population


An understanding of risks to biodiversity is needed for planning action to slow current rates of decline and secure ecosystem services for future human use. Although the IUCN Red List criteria provide an effective assessment protocol for species, a standard global assessment of risks to higher levels of biodiversity is currently limited. In 2008, IUCN initiated development of risk assessment criteria to support a global Red List of ecosystems. We present a new conceptual model for ecosystem risk assessment founded on a synthesis of relevant ecological theories. To support the model, we review key elements of ecosystem definition and introduce the concept of ecosystem collapse, an analogue of species extinction. The model identifies four distributional and functional symptoms of ecosystem risk as a basis for assessment criteria: A) rates of decline in ecosystem distribution; B) restricted distributions with continuing declines or threats; C) rates of environmental (abiotic) degradation; and D) rates of disruption to biotic processes. A fifth criterion, E) quantitative estimates of the risk of ecosystem collapse, enables integrated assessment of multiple processes and provides a conceptual anchor for the other criteria. We present the theoretical rationale for the construction and interpretation of each criterion. The assessment protocol and threat categories mirror those of the IUCN Red List of species. A trial of the protocol on terrestrial, subterranean, freshwater and marine ecosystems from around the world shows that its concepts are workable and its outcomes are robust, that required data are available, and that results are consistent with assessments carried out by local experts and authorities. The new protocol provides a consistent, practical and theoretically grounded framework for establishing a systematic Red List of the world’s ecosystems. This will complement the Red List of species and strengthen global capacity to report on and monitor the status of biodiversity.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Plant, Ecology, Ecosystem, Endangered species, Extinction, Ecological economics, IUCN Red List


The linking of North and South America by the Isthmus of Panama had major impacts on global climate, oceanic and atmospheric currents, and biodiversity, yet the timing of this critical event remains contentious. The Isthmus is traditionally understood to have fully closed by ca. 3.5 million years ago (Ma), and this date has been used as a benchmark for oceanographic, climatic, and evolutionary research, but recent evidence suggests a more complex geological formation. Here, we analyze both molecular and fossil data to evaluate the tempo of biotic exchange across the Americas in light of geological evidence. We demonstrate significant waves of dispersal of terrestrial organisms at approximately ca. 20 and 6 Ma and corresponding events separating marine organisms in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at ca. 23 and 7 Ma. The direction of dispersal and their rates were symmetrical until the last ca. 6 Ma, when northern migration of South American lineages increased significantly. Variability among taxa in their timing of dispersal or vicariance across the Isthmus is not explained by the ecological factors tested in these analyses, including biome type, dispersal ability, and elevation preference. Migration was therefore not generally regulated by intrinsic traits but more likely reflects the presence of emergent terrain several millions of years earlier than commonly assumed. These results indicate that the dramatic biotic turnover associated with the Great American Biotic Interchange was a long and complex process that began as early as the Oligocene-Miocene transition.

Concepts: Biology, Ecology, Earth, Ecosystem, Pacific Ocean, South America, Ocean, Isthmus of Panama


Imidacloprid is one of the most widely used insecticides in the world. Its concentration in surface water exceeds the water quality norms in many parts of the Netherlands. Several studies have demonstrated harmful effects of this neonicotinoid to a wide range of non-target species. Therefore we expected that surface water pollution with imidacloprid would negatively impact aquatic ecosystems. Availability of extensive monitoring data on the abundance of aquatic macro-invertebrate species, and on imidacloprid concentrations in surface water in the Netherlands enabled us to test this hypothesis. Our regression analysis showed a significant negative relationship (P<0.001) between macro-invertebrate abundance and imidacloprid concentration for all species pooled. A significant negative relationship was also found for the orders Amphipoda, Basommatophora, Diptera, Ephemeroptera and Isopoda, and for several species separately. The order Odonata had a negative relationship very close to the significance threshold of 0.05 (P = 0.051). However, in accordance with previous research, a positive relationship was found for the order Actinedida. We used the monitoring field data to test whether the existing three water quality norms for imidacloprid in the Netherlands are protective in real conditions. Our data show that macrofauna abundance drops sharply between 13 and 67 ng l(-1). For aquatic ecosystem protection, two of the norms are not protective at all while the strictest norm of 13 ng l(-1) (MTR) seems somewhat protective. In addition to the existing experimental evidence on the negative effects of imidacloprid on invertebrate life, our study, based on data from large-scale field monitoring during multiple years, shows that serious concern about the far-reaching consequences of the abundant use of imidacloprid for aquatic ecosystems is justified.

Concepts: Water, Water pollution, Ecosystem, Aquatic ecology, Aquatic ecosystem, Systems ecology, Marine pollution, Ecosystems


Ongoing greenhouse gas emissions can modify climate processes and induce shifts in ocean temperature, pH, oxygen concentration, and productivity, which in turn could alter biological and social systems. Here, we provide a synoptic global assessment of the simultaneous changes in future ocean biogeochemical variables over marine biota and their broader implications for people. We analyzed modern Earth System Models forced by greenhouse gas concentration pathways until 2100 and showed that the entire world’s ocean surface will be simultaneously impacted by varying intensities of ocean warming, acidification, oxygen depletion, or shortfalls in productivity. In contrast, only a small fraction of the world’s ocean surface, mostly in polar regions, will experience increased oxygenation and productivity, while almost nowhere will there be ocean cooling or pH elevation. We compiled the global distribution of 32 marine habitats and biodiversity hotspots and found that they would all experience simultaneous exposure to changes in multiple biogeochemical variables. This superposition highlights the high risk for synergistic ecosystem responses, the suite of physiological adaptations needed to cope with future climate change, and the potential for reorganization of global biodiversity patterns. If co-occurring biogeochemical changes influence the delivery of ocean goods and services, then they could also have a considerable effect on human welfare. Approximately 470 to 870 million of the poorest people in the world rely heavily on the ocean for food, jobs, and revenues and live in countries that will be most affected by simultaneous changes in ocean biogeochemistry. These results highlight the high risk of degradation of marine ecosystems and associated human hardship expected in a future following current trends in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Oceanography, Ecosystem, Climate change, Natural gas, Greenhouse gas, Global warming


An intact forest landscape (IFL) is a seamless mosaic of forest and naturally treeless ecosystems with no remotely detected signs of human activity and a minimum area of 500 km(2). IFLs are critical for stabilizing terrestrial carbon storage, harboring biodiversity, regulating hydrological regimes, and providing other ecosystem functions. Although the remaining IFLs comprise only 20% of tropical forest area, they account for 40% of the total aboveground tropical forest carbon. We show that global IFL extent has been reduced by 7.2% since the year 2000. An increasing rate of global IFL area reduction was found, largely driven by the tripling of IFL tropical forest loss in 2011-2013 compared to that in 2001-2003. Industrial logging, agricultural expansion, fire, and mining/resource extraction were the primary causes of IFL area reduction. Protected areas (International Union for Conservation of Nature categories I to III) were found to have a positive effect in slowing the reduction of IFL area from timber harvesting but were less effective in limiting agricultural expansion. The certification of logging concessions under responsible management had a negligible impact on slowing IFL fragmentation in the Congo Basin. Fragmentation of IFLs by logging and establishment of roads and other infrastructure initiates a cascade of changes that lead to landscape transformation and loss of conservation values. Given that only 12% of the global IFL area is protected, our results illustrate the need for planning and investment in carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation efforts that target the most valuable remaining forests, as identified using the IFL approach.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Biodiversity, Conservation biology, Ecosystem, Forest, Wilderness, Forests, Intact forest landscape


Despite their profound adaptations to the aquatic realm and their apparent success throughout the Triassic and the Jurassic, ichthyosaurs became extinct roughly 30 million years before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Current hypotheses for this early demise involve relatively minor biotic events, but are at odds with recent understanding of the ichthyosaur fossil record. Here, we show that ichthyosaurs maintained high but diminishing richness and disparity throughout the Early Cretaceous. The last ichthyosaurs are characterized by reduced rates of origination and phenotypic evolution and their elevated extinction rates correlate with increased environmental volatility. In addition, we find that ichthyosaurs suffered from a profound Early Cenomanian extinction that reduced their ecological diversity, likely contributing to their final extinction at the end of the Cenomanian. Our results support a growing body of evidence revealing that global environmental change resulted in a major, temporally staggered turnover event that profoundly reorganized marine ecosystems during the Cenomanian.

Concepts: Evolution, Ecology, Ecosystem, Extinction, Cretaceous, Dinosaur, Jurassic, Ichthyosaur


Amazon forests, which store ∼50% of tropical forest carbon and play a vital role in global water, energy, and carbon cycling, are predicted to experience both longer and more intense dry seasons by the end of the 21st century. However, the climate sensitivity of this ecosystem remains uncertain: several studies have predicted large-scale die-back of the Amazon, whereas several more recent studies predict that the biome will remain largely intact. Combining remote-sensing and ground-based observations with a size- and age-structured terrestrial ecosystem model, we explore the sensitivity and ecological resilience of these forests to changes in climate. We demonstrate that water stress operating at the scale of individual plants, combined with spatial variation in soil texture, explains observed patterns of variation in ecosystem biomass, composition, and dynamics across the region, and strongly influences the ecosystem’s resilience to changes in dry season length. Specifically, our analysis suggests that in contrast to existing predictions of either stability or catastrophic biomass loss, the Amazon forest’s response to a drying regional climate is likely to be an immediate, graded, heterogeneous transition from high-biomass moist forests to transitional dry forests and woody savannah-like states. Fire, logging, and other anthropogenic disturbances may, however, exacerbate these climate change-induced ecosystem transitions.

Concepts: Scientific method, Climate, Ecosystem, Climate change, Forest, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests


Functional redundancy has been debated largely in ecology and conservation, yet we lack detailed empirical studies on the roles of functionally similar species in ecosystem function. Large bodied frugivores may disperse similar plant species and have strong impact on plant recruitment in tropical forests. The two largest frugivores in the neotropics, tapirs (Tapirus terrestris) and muriquis (Brachyteles arachnoides) are potential candidates for functional redundancy on seed dispersal effectiveness. Here we provide a comparison of the quantitative, qualitative and spatial effects on seed dispersal by these megafrugivores in a continuous Brazilian Atlantic forest.

Concepts: Scientific method, Biodiversity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Forest, Biogeography, Great American Interchange, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests