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Dry and wet periods drive rapid shifts in community assembly in an estuarine ecosystem.
Chang, AL; Brown, CW; Crooks, JA; Ruiz, GM
The impacts of changing climate regimes on emergent processes controlling the assembly of ecological communities remain poorly understood. Human alterations to the water cycle in the western United States have resulted in greater interannual variability and more frequent and severe extremes in freshwater flow. The specific mechanisms through which such extremes and climate regime shifts may alter ecological communities have rarely been demonstrated, and baseline information on current impacts of environmental variation is widely lacking for many habitats and communities. Here, we used observations and experiments to show that interannual variation in winter salinity levels in San Francisco Bay controls the mechanisms determining sessile invertebrate community composition during the following summer. We found consistent community changes in response to decadal-scale dry and wet extremes during a 13-year period, producing strikingly different communities. Our results match theoretical predictions of major shifts in species composition in response to environmental forcing up to a threshold, beyond which we observed mass mortality and wholesale replacement of the former community. These results provide a window into potential future community changes, with environmental forcing altering communities by shifting the relative influences of the mechanisms controlling species distributions and abundances. We place these results in the context of historical and projected future environmental variation in the San Francisco Bay Estuary.
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