The effects of temperature on stream ecosystem structure, secondary production, and food web dynamics

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Since 1880, Earth's mean temperature has risen ~0.85 °C, and increases >1.5 °C are likely by the end of the 21st century. Warming temperatures will continue to shuffle and restructure ecological communities and the consequences of these changes for ecosystem processes and services are largely unknown because of the difficulties in measurement and understanding in complex ecological systems. Yet, isolating temperature's influence is crucial to predicting how ecosystems will look and operate in a 'no-analog' future and to begin to integrate warming with the myriad other stressors affecting natural systems. In this dissertation, I leverage a natural stream temperature gradient (~5 - 25 °C) within a geothermal watershed to investigate the effects of temperature on stream ecosystems--with three specific questions: 1) what is the relative influence of temperature and stream flow on whole-ecosystem biomass and element storage? 2) how does temperature shape patterns of animal production across and within streams? and 3) how does temperature modify the seasonal patterns of consumer-resource interactions in stream food webs? I found stream flow to have primacy in driving the 2 orders of magnitude variation in ecosystem biomass and element storage--mediated through flow's effect on plant body size. At higher trophic levels, temperature strongly shaped the patterns of secondary production coinciding with a 45-fold increase in annual secondary production across streams. This positive relationship was mediated through covariation between temperature and basal resource availability, both across and within streams. Consumer interactions with basal resources showed differing seasonality with increasing temperature. At higher temperatures, consumer demand and resource availability were strongly coupled seasonally compared to cooler streams. Tighter coupling between consumers and resources with temperature lead to more consistent, if higher, interaction strengths through the year. My work shows temperature as an important structuring driver of ecosystem structure and process, however, a common thread through each chapter shows the influence of temperature is mediated through its interactions with other ecosystem drivers. Ultimately, as the covariation between temperature and other environmental drivers (e.g., disturbance, nutrient and light availability, etc.) shift globally, recognizing these interactions is increasingly important.




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