Heating small patches of forest shows how climate warming might change the winner-loser dynamics as species struggle for control of prize territories. And such shifts in control could have wide-ranging effects on ecosystems.
The species are cavity-nesting ants in eastern North America. Normally, communities of these ant species go through frequent turnovers in control of nest sites. But as researchers heated enclosures to mimic increasingly severe climate warming, the control started shifting toward a few persistent winners. Several heat-loving species tended to stay in nests unusually long, instead of being replaced in faster ant upheavals, says Sarah Diamond of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
That’s worrisome not only for the new perpetual losers among ants but for the ecosystem as a whole, she and her colleagues argue October 26 in Science Advances. Ants have an outsized effect on ecosystems. They churn up soil, shape the flow of nutrients and disperse seeds to new homes. Ant species that can’t compete in a warmer climate may blink out of the community array, with consequences for other species they affect.
Teasing out the indirect effects of climate change has been difficult. “We’ve all sort of thrown up our hands and said probably these interactions are quite important, but they’re really hard to measure so we’re just going to ignore that for now,” Diamond says.Experiments have begun tackling those interactions, and the ant enclosures were among the most ambitious. At each of two experimental sites — in North Carolina and Massachusetts — researchers set up 15 roomy plots to mimic various warming scenarios, from 1.5 degrees Celsius above the surrounding air temperature to an extra 5.5 degrees C. To install outdoor heating, “we had backhoes in there digging trenches,” Diamond says. Giant propane tanks fueled boilers that forced warmer air into the enclosures to heat the soil. Computers monitored soil temperature and fine-tuned air flow.
At least 60 species of local ants came and went naturally, some of them nesting in boxes the researchers placed in the enclosures. For five years, the researchers regularly monitored which common species were living in the boxes.
Warmth gave an edge to a few heat-tolerant species such as Temnothorax longispinosus in the forest in Massachusetts. This tiny ant can build colonies inside an acorn and is a known target for attacks by slavemaker ants that invade nests instead of establishing their own. With increased warming, however, it and a few other heat-loving ants tended to hold their nests longer.
Those longer stints destabilize the ant community with its usual faster pace of turnovers of nests, which typically gives more species a chance at decent shelter and better luck in surviving in the community. What’s more, the analysis showed that the more a plot was heated, the more time the ants would need after some disturbance to return to the equilibrium of their usual affairs.
“A key strength of this study is their regular sampling,” says Jason Tylianakis, who holds joint appointments at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and Imperial College London. Those data gave the scientists an unusually detailed picture of subtle community effects, he says.
The authors have “documented a new consequence of temperature change on communities,” says marine ecologist Sarah Gilman of the Claremont Colleges in California. Other studies have talked about climate change pushing communities to dramatically new, but ultimately stable states. But the ant experiment shows that climate change may be undermining the stability of communities that, at least for the moment, still look fairly normal.
Editor’s note: This story was updated November 10, 2016, to correct the upper temperature level to which the ant enclosures were heated.