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Experimental warming induces degradation of a Tibetan alpine meadow through trophic interactions

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1. It is well known that climate change alters abiotic factors (temperature and water availability) that directly affect ecosystem properties. However, less is known about the indirect impacts of climate change on ecosystem structure and function. Here, we show that experimental warming may deteriorate ecosystems via trophic interactions.

2. In a Tibetan alpine meadow, plant species composition, size, coverage and above-ground biomass were investigated to reveal the effect of artificial warming (c. 1 °C mean annual temperature at the soil surface), which was accomplished using warmed and ambient open top chambers. In addition, rodent damage to plants was assessed.

3. The dicot forb silverweed Potentilla anserina increased significantly, while other species groups remained unchanged or decreased in plant community dominance rank after 2 years of artificial warming. The change in community structure was attributed to the difference in biomass allocation and growth form among species.

4. In the third year, plateau zokors Myospalax fontanierii, a widespread rodent herbivore, damaged plants in the warmed chambers, while leaving plants in the ambient chambers mostly undamaged. Above-ground biomass was found to be smaller in the warmed chambers than the controls in the third year, in contrast to the trend of the first 2 years. In addition, zokor burrow density was positively correlated with silverweed biomass and its dominance within communities, which was consistent with findings of independent field investigations that silverweed-dominated plots were more likely to be visited and damaged by the zokors than sites-dominated by grass species.

5.Synthesis and applications. The top-down negative effect of zokor damage on above-ground biomass in the warmed chambers was induced by the bottom-up effect of changes in species composition and community structure on zokor foraging behaviour, which were driven by artificial warming. Such trophic interactions may invalidate some predictions of ecological effects by current species-climate envelope models. Furthermore, because management measures including increasing the water table, planting grass and moderate cattle grazing may prevent silverweed dominance, we suggest that these interventions could be employed to control zokor damage in alpine meadows that are predicted to be drier and warmer in the future.
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Keywords: Tibetan Plateau; alpine meadow; bottom-up and top-down control; global warming; trophic interaction

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: ECORES Lab, Chengdu Institute of Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chengdu 610041, China 2: Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, 1530 Cleveland Ave. N., St. Paul, MN 55108, USA

Publication date: June 1, 2011

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