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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Herbivores help protect ecosystems from climate change

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October 11, 2017 University of British Columbia read full ScienceDaily article here

Plant-eating critters are the key ingredient to helping ecosystems survive global warming, finds new research that offers some hope for a defense strategy against climate change.

The herbivores created space for other plants and animals to move in and we saw much more diversity and variety in these ecosystems,” said Rebecca Kordas, the lead author of the study who completed this research as a PhD student in zoology at UBC. “We want variety because we found it helps protect the ecosystem when you add a stressor like heat.”

…The researchers found that in the summer, when temperatures were at their warmest, communities could fare well even if they were heated, but only if limpets were present. “When limpets were part of the community, the effects of warming were less harsh,” she said….

…The researchers were studying life in the intertidal zone, the area of the shore between the low tide and high tide. This area is home to a community of starfish, anemones, mussels, barnacles and seaweed. As the tide moves in and out, the plants and animals must cope with huge variation in temperature every day, sometimes as much as 20 to 25 degrees Celsius.

These creatures are already living at their physiological limits, so a two-degree change –– a conservative prediction of the warming expected over the next 80 years or so — can make a big difference,” said Kordas. “When heat waves come through B.C. and the Pacific Northwest, we see mass mortality of numerous intertidal species.”…

Rebecca L. Kordas, Ian Donohue, Christopher D. G. Harley. Herbivory enables marine communities to resist warming. Science Advances, 2017; 3 (10): e1701349 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1701349

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