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Turning up the heat: warming influences plankton biomass and spring phenology in subtropical waters characterized by extensive fish omnivory

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Understanding how biological communities respond to climate change is a major challenge in ecology. The response of ectotherms to changes in temperature depends not only on their species-specific thermal tolerances but also on temperature-mediated interactions across different trophic levels. Warming is predicted to reinforce trophic cascades in linear aquatic food chains, but little is known about how warming might affect the lower trophic levels of food webs involving extensive fish omnivory, a common scenario in subtropical and tropical waterbodies. In this study, a mesocosm warming experiment was conducted involving a pelagic food chain (fish–zooplankton–phytoplankton) topped by the omnivorous bighead carp [Aristichthys nobilis (Richardson)]. We found that temperature elevation significantly enhanced the growth of fish and suppressed zooplankton, including both metazooplankton and ciliates, while abundances of phytoplankton, despite disruption of temporal dynamics, did not increase correspondingly—likely due to fish predation. Our results suggest that trophic cascades are less unlikely to be reinforced by warming in food chains involving significant omnivory. Moreover, we found that warming advanced the spring abundance peak of phytoplankton abundance and that of the parthenogenetic rotifer Brachionus quadridentatus; whereas, it had no effect on the only sexually reproducing copepod, Mesocyclops leuckarti, presumably due to its prolonged life history. Our study also confirmed that warming may lead to a phenological mismatch between some predators and their prey because of the distinct life histories among taxa, with potentially severe consequences for resource flow in the food chain, at least in the short term.

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We express our gratitude to Xiaoxia Chen, Kai Peng, and Ruijie Shen for their help in the field and the laboratory work and Anne-Mette Poulsen for linguistic assistance. This study was supported by National Science Foundation of China (31930074; 31971473), Chinese National Key Research and Development Project (2017YFA0605201), and NIGLAS 135 Project (NIGLAS2017GH01, NIGLAS2018GH04). HH was supported by China Scholarship Council for a 1-year research stay in Denmark. EJ was supported by AQUACOSM (Network of Leading European AQUAtic MesoCOSM Facilities Connecting Mountains to Oceans from the Arctic to the Mediterranean), AnaEE Denmark (, and the Tübitak program BIDEB 2232.

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HH, KL, and ZL planned and designed this research. HH, JL, QL, and YH performed sampling and laboratory analysis work. HH, JL, YC, WL, JY, EJ, and ZL wrote the manuscript. All authors analyzed the data, commented on, and approved the manuscript and agreed upon the submission.

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Correspondence to Hu He.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by Ulrich Sommer.

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He, H., Li, Q., Li, J. et al. Turning up the heat: warming influences plankton biomass and spring phenology in subtropical waters characterized by extensive fish omnivory. Oecologia 194, 251–265 (2020).

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