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Temperature Linked with Food-Webs in Arctic Ecosystems

Mar 27, 2014 01:53 PM EDT

A comprehensive analysis of Arctic wildlife and the food-web system in place reveals that temperature has a surprising and important effect on the food chain, according to new research.

Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change, an international team of biologists reports their field study of Arctic wildlife and food-webs in Canada, Greenland, Russia and Norway.

"Temperature has an unexpectedly important effect on food-web structure," Denmark's Aarhus University reported. "While the relationship between predator and prey is crucial for the food-web dynamics and thereby the entire ecosystem."

Aarhus biologist Niels Martin Schmidt, one of the study authors, said the team gathered evidence revealing that temperature is a decisive factor that influences all aspects of the Arctic food chain.

"We have gathered data on all animals and plants characterizing the Arctic tundra in seven different areas," Schmidt said in a statement. "This has allowed us to generate a picture of how food chains vary over a very large geographical (and, with it, climatic) gradient. Therefore, and for the first time, we can offer an explanation of the factors governing the tundra as an ecosystem."

By understanding how temperature affects wildlife in the Arctic, the researchers can get a better understanding of how the food web as a whole is impacted. For instance, predator-prey relationships is an important factor in the regulation of energy flow through a food web, the researchers said. Temperature regulates which organisms interact with one another, thus regulating their function in the overall ecosystem.

"Our results show that predators are the most important items of the tundra food chains, except in the High Arctic," Schmidt said. "The intensity varies with the body size of the herbivores (plant eaters) of the chains. For example, the musk ox is far more likely to avoid being eaten by predatory animals than the lemming."

The research is the latest in an analysis of temperature on food-web systems in a variety of climates. A similar study has been conducted in the African savanna.

"We may possibly be one step closer to proposing a general principle for how terrestrial ecosystems are structured," Aarhus University reported.

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