Local adaptation to temperature conserves top-down control in a grassland food web

Brandon T. Barton


A fundamental limitation in many climate change experiments is that tests represent relatively short-term ‘shock’ experiments and so do not incorporate the phenotypic plasticity or evolutionary change that may occur during the gradual process of climate change. However, capturing this aspect of climate change effects in an experimental design is a difficult challenge that few studies have accomplished. I examined the effect of temperature and predator climate history in food webs composed of herbaceous plants, generalist grasshopper herbivores and spider predators across a natural 4.8°C temperature gradient spanning 500 km in northeastern USA. In these grasslands, the effects of rising temperatures on the plant community are indirect and arise via altered predator–herbivore interactions. Experimental warming had no direct effect on grasshoppers, but reduced predation risk effects by causing spiders from all study sites to seek thermal refuge lower in the plant canopy. However, spider thermal tolerance corresponded to spider origin such that spiders from warmer study sites tolerated higher temperatures than spiders from cooler study sites. As a consequence, the magnitude of the indirect effect of spiders on plants did not differ along the temperature gradient, although a reciprocal transplant experiment revealed significantly different effects of spider origin on the magnitude of top-down control. These results suggest that variation in predator response to warming may maintain species interactions and associated food web processes when faced with long term, chronic climate warming.

  • Received January 5, 2011.
  • Accepted February 10, 2011.
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