Phenological shifts of three interacting zooplankton groups in relation to climate change


Over the past several decades, global warming has been linked to shifts in the distributions and abundances of species. In the southern North Sea, temperatures have increased in the last three decades and this will likely have consequences on the seasonality of marine organisms living in the area. Ctenophores such as Beroe gracilis and Pleurobrachia pileus could be particularly affected by changes in their own phenology and that of their prey, thus causing shifts in ecosystem function. Despite their global relevance and their potentially deleterious effect on the fishing industry, only a few long-term records of ctenophore abundance exist, and most of these records are semiquantitative in nature. Therefore, our knowledge of the influence of environmental factors on their population development is presently very limited. In this study, the long-term abundance dynamics of B. gracilis, P. pileus and their food calanoid copepods were analysed for a highly temporally resolved time series in the German Bight at Helgoland Roads. Special attention was focused on the response of these organisms to climate warming. Bayesian statistics showed that the phenology of the two ctenophores shifted in a step-like mode in the year 1987/1988 to permanent earlier appearances. The seasonal change in the population blooms of P. pileus and B. gracilis correlated remarkably well with a step-like increase in winter and spring sea surface temperatures of the southern North Sea. Possible explanations for the changes observed in these organisms include higher reproductive rates, increased winter survival rates or both. Interannual variations in ctenophore abundances correlated best with the interannual changes in spring temperatures, although the impact of temperature on B. gracilis appeared less pronounced. The changes in copepods abundance were not consistent with changes in P. pileus and B. gracilis. P. pileus showed longer periods of high abundance after the permanent seasonal advancement. These longer periods were correlated with a decline in the average autumn abundance of copepods. Changes in the phenology of these organisms raise the concerns on the declining state of fish stocks, which could potentially be exacerbated by gelatinous zooplankton outbreaks. These conditions may ultimately lead to trophic dead ends by channelling the flow of energy away from higher trophic levels.
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