skip to main content

Title: Sea‐surface temperature anomalies mediate changes in fish richness and abundance in Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico estuaries
Abstract Aim

Anthropogenic warming of marine systems has caused biological and physiological responses that are fundamentally altering ecosystem structure. Because estuaries exist at the land‐ocean interface, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of ocean warming as they can undergo rapid biogeochemical and hydrological shifts due to climate and land‐use change. We explored how multiple components of estuarine fish diversity—turnover, richness, and abundance—have changed in the North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico estuaries across space and time and the drivers of change.


North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.




We compiled long‐term (>30 years), continent‐wide fisheries independent trawl surveys conducted in estuaries—from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Mexico (U.S. waters)—and combined these with climate and land‐use‐land‐cover data to examine trends and ecological drivers of fish richness, abundance and turnover using mixed‐effect models.


Species richness, abundance and turnover have increased in North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico estuaries in the last 30 years. These changes were mediated largely by sea‐surface temperature anomalies, especially in more northern estuaries where warming has been relatively pronounced.

Main Conclusion

The increasing trajectory of turnover in many estuaries suggests that fish communities have changed fundamentally from the baselines. A fundamental change in community composition can lead to an irreversible trophic imbalance or alternative stable states among other outcomes. Thus, predicting how shifting community structures might influence food webs, ecosystem stability, and human resource use remain a pertinent task.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
1926395 2027821
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Biogeography
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 1609-1617
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Along the Gulf ofAlaska, rapid glacier retreat has driven changes in transport of freshwater, sediments, and nutrients to estuary habitats. Over the coming decades, deglaciation will lead to a temporary increase, followed by a long-term decline of glacial influence on estuaries. Therefore, quantifying the current variability in estuarine fish community structure in regions predicted to be most affected by glacier loss is necessary to anticipate future impacts. We analyzed fish community data collected monthly (April through September) over 7 years (2013–2019) from glacially influenced estuaries along the southeastern Gulf of Alaska. River delta sites within estuaries were sampled along a natural gradient of glacial to non-glacial watersheds to characterize variation in fish communities exposed to varying degrees of glacial influence. Differences in seasonal patterns of taxa richness and abundance between the most and least glacially influenced sites suggest that hydrological drivers influence the structure of delta fish communities. The most glacially influenced sites had lower richness but higher abundance overall compared to those with least glacial influence; however, differences among sites were small compared to differences across months. Two dominant species—Pacific staghorn sculpin and starry flounder—contributed most to spatial and temporal variation in community composition; however, given only small interannual differences in richness and abundance over the period of the study, we conclude that year-to-year variation at these sites is relatively low at present. Our study provides an important benchmark against which to compare shifts in fish communities as watersheds and downstream estuaries continue to transform in the coming decades.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Summer rainfall in the southeast Prairie Pothole Region (SEPPR) is an important part of a vital wetland ecosystem that various species use as their habitat. We examine sources and pathways for summer rainfall moisture, large‐scale features influencing moisture delivery, and large‐scale connections related to summer moisture using the Hybrid Single‐Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory (HYSPLIT) model. Analysis of HYSPLIT back trajectories shows that land is the primary moisture source for summer rainfall events indicating moisture recycling plays an important role in precipitation generation. The Great Plains Low‐Level Jet/Maya Express is the most prominent moisture pathway. It impacts events sourced by land and the Gulf of Mexico (GoM), the secondary moisture source. There is a coupling between land, atmosphere, and ocean conveyed by large‐scale climate connections between rainfall events and sea surface temperature (SST), Palmer Drought Severity Index, and 850‐mb heights. Land‐sourced events have a connection to the northern Pacific and northwest Atlantic Oceans, soil moisture over the central U.S., and low‐pressure systems over the SEPPR. GoM‐sourced events share the connection to soil moisture over the central U.S. but also show connections to SSTs in the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and the GoM, soil moisture in northern Mexico, and 850‐mb heights in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Both types of events show connections to high 850‐mb heights in the Caribbean which may reflect a connection to Bermuda High. These insights into moisture sources and pathways can improve skill in SEPPR summer rainfall predictions and benefit natural resource managers in the region.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract Aim

    The frequency of different body sizes in an ecological community (the individual size distribution, or ISD) is a key link between the number of individual organisms present in a community and community function—total biomass or total energy use. If the ISD changes over time, the dynamics of community function may become decoupled from trends in abundance. Understanding how, and how often, the ISD modulates the relationship between abundance, biomass and energy use is of critical importance to understand biodiversity trends in the Anthropocene. Here, we conduct the first macroecological‐scale analysis of this type for avian communities.


    North America, north of Mexico.

    Time Period


    Major Taxa Studied

    Breeding birds.


    We used species' traits to generate annual ISDs for bird communities in the North American Breeding Bird Survey. We compared the long‐term trends in total biomass and energy use to the trends generated from a null model of an unchanging ISD.


    Trends in biomass have been evenly split between increases and decreases, but the trends predicted by the null model were dominated by decreases. A substantial number of communities have undergone a shift in the ISD favouring larger bodied species, resulting in a less negative trend in biomass than would be expected had the ISD remained static. Trends in energy use more closely paralleled the null model.

    Main Conclusions

    Taking changes in the ISD into account qualitatively changes the continental‐scale picture of how biomass and energy use have changed over the past 30 years. For North American breeding birds, shifts in species composition favouring larger bodied species may have partially offset declines in standing biomass driven by losses of individuals over the past 30 years.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract Background

    The global human footprint has fundamentally altered wildfire regimes, creating serious consequences for human health, biodiversity, and climate. However, it remains difficult to project how long-term interactions among land use, management, and climate change will affect fire behavior, representing a key knowledge gap for sustainable management. We used expert assessment to combine opinions about past and future fire regimes from 99 wildfire researchers. We asked for quantitative and qualitative assessments of the frequency, type, and implications of fire regime change from the beginning of the Holocene through the year 2300.


    Respondents indicated some direct human influence on wildfire since at least ~ 12,000 years BP, though natural climate variability remained the dominant driver of fire regime change until around 5,000 years BP, for most study regions. Responses suggested a ten-fold increase in the frequency of fire regime change during the last 250 years compared with the rest of the Holocene, corresponding first with the intensification and extensification of land use and later with anthropogenic climate change. Looking to the future, fire regimes were predicted to intensify, with increases in frequency, severity, and size in all biomes except grassland ecosystems. Fire regimes showed different climate sensitivities across biomes, but the likelihood of fire regime change increased with higher warming scenarios for all biomes. Biodiversity, carbon storage, and other ecosystem services were predicted to decrease for most biomes under higher emission scenarios. We present recommendations for adaptation and mitigation under emerging fire regimes, while recognizing that management options are constrained under higher emission scenarios.


    The influence of humans on wildfire regimes has increased over the last two centuries. The perspective gained from past fires should be considered in land and fire management strategies, but novel fire behavior is likely given the unprecedented human disruption of plant communities, climate, and other factors. Future fire regimes are likely to degrade key ecosystem services, unless climate change is aggressively mitigated. Expert assessment complements empirical data and modeling, providing a broader perspective of fire science to inform decision making and future research priorities.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract Motivation

    Rapid climate change is altering plant communities around the globe fundamentally. Despite progress in understanding how plants respond to these climate shifts, accumulating evidence suggests that disturbance could not only modify expected plant responses but, in some cases, have larger impacts on compositional shifts than climate change. Climate‐driven disturbances are becoming increasingly common in many biomes and are key drivers of vegetation dynamics at both species and community levels. Palaeoecological records provide valuable observational windows for elucidating the long‐term impacts of these disturbances on plant dynamics; however, sparse resolution and difficulty in disentangling drivers of change limit our ability to understand the impact of disturbance on plant communities. In this targeted review, we highlight emerging opportunities in palaeoecology to advance our understanding about how disturbance, especially fire, impacts the ecological and evolutionary dynamics of terrestrial plant communities.


    Global examples, with many from North America.


    We propose a set of palaeoecological and integrative approaches that could greatly enhance our understanding of how disturbance regimes influence global plant dynamics. Specifically, we identify four future study areas: (1) focus on palaeoecological disturbance proxies beyond fire and leverage multi proxy research to examine the influence of interacting disturbances on plant community dynamics; (2) use advances in disturbance and vegetation reconstructions, including ancient sedimentary DNA, to provide the spatial, temporal and taxonomic resolution needed to resolve the relationship between changing disturbance regimes and corresponding shifts in plant community composition; (3) integrate palaeoecological, archaeological and Indigenous knowledge to disentangle the complex interplay between climate, human land use, fire and vegetation structure; and (4) apply “functional palaeoecology” and the synergy between palaeoecology and genetics to understand how fire disturbance has served as a long‐standing selective agent on plants. These frameworks could increase the resolution of disturbance‐driven plant dynamics, potentially providing valuable information for future management.

    more » « less