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Climate-driven regime shift of a temperate marine ecosystem

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Science  08 Jul 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6295, pp. 169-172
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad8745

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No turning back?

Ecosystems over time have endured much disturbance, yet they tend to remain intact, a characteristic we call resilience. Though many systems have been lost and destroyed, for systems that remain physically intact, there is debate as to whether changing temperatures will result in shifts or collapses. Wernburg et al. show that extreme warming of a temperate kelp forest off Australia resulted not only in its collapse, but also in a shift in community composition that brought about an increase in herbivorous tropical fishes that prevent the reestablishment of kelp. Thus, many systems may not be resilient to the rapid climate change that we face.

Science, this issue p. 169

Abstract

Ecosystem reconfigurations arising from climate-driven changes in species distributions are expected to have profound ecological, social, and economic implications. Here we reveal a rapid climate-driven regime shift of Australian temperate reef communities, which lost their defining kelp forests and became dominated by persistent seaweed turfs. After decades of ocean warming, extreme marine heat waves forced a 100-kilometer range contraction of extensive kelp forests and saw temperate species replaced by seaweeds, invertebrates, corals, and fishes characteristic of subtropical and tropical waters. This community-wide tropicalization fundamentally altered key ecological processes, suppressing the recovery of kelp forests.

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