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Understanding the structure and functioning of polar pelagic ecosystems to predict the impacts of change.

  • Author(s): Murphy, EJ;
  • Cavanagh, RD;
  • Drinkwater, KF;
  • Grant, SM;
  • Heymans, JJ;
  • Hofmann, EE;
  • Hunt, GL;
  • Johnston, NM
  • et al.
Abstract

The determinants of the structure, functioning and resilience of pelagic ecosystems across most of the polar regions are not well known. Improved understanding is essential for assessing the value of biodiversity and predicting the effects of change (including in biodiversity) on these ecosystems and the services they maintain. Here we focus on the trophic interactions that underpin ecosystem structure, developing comparative analyses of how polar pelagic food webs vary in relation to the environment. We highlight that there is not a singular, generic Arctic or Antarctic pelagic food web, and, although there are characteristic pathways of energy flow dominated by a small number of species, alternative routes are important for maintaining energy transfer and resilience. These more complex routes cannot, however, provide the same rate of energy flow to highest trophic-level species. Food-web structure may be similar in different regions, but the individual species that dominate mid-trophic levels vary across polar regions. The characteristics (traits) of these species are also different and these differences influence a range of food-web processes. Low functional redundancy at key trophic levels makes these ecosystems particularly sensitive to change. To develop models for projecting responses of polar ecosystems to future environmental change, we propose a conceptual framework that links the life histories of pelagic species and the structure of polar food webs.

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