Bodil Elmhagen


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The fluctuating world of a tundra predator guild: Bottom-up constraints overrule top-down species interactions in winter

Global warming is predicted to change ecosystem functioning and structure in Arctic ecosystems by strengthening top-down species interactions, i.e. predation pressure on small herbivores and interference between predators. Yet, previous research is biased towards the summer season. Due to greater abiotic constraints, Arctic ecosystem characteristics might be more pronounced in winter. Here we test the hypothesis that top-down species interactions prevail over bottom-up effects in Scandinavian mountain tundra (Northern Sweden) where effects of climate warming have been observed and top-down interactions are expected to strengthen. But we test this a-priori hypothesis in winter and throughout the 3-4 year rodent cycle, which imposes additional pulsed resource constraints. We used snowtracking data recorded in 12 winters (2004-2015) to analyse the spatial patterns of a tundra predator guild (arctic fox Vulpes lagopus, red fox Vulpes vulpes, wolverine Gulo gulo) and small prey (ptarmigan, Lagopus spp). The a-priori top-down hypothesis was then tested through structural equation modelling, for each phase of the rodent cycle. There was weak support for this hypothesis, with top-down effects only discerned on arctic fox (weakly, by wolverine) and ptarmigan (by arctic fox) at intermediate and high rodent availability respectively. Overall, bottom-up constraints appeared more influential on the winter community structure. Cold specialist predators (arctic fox and wolverine) showed variable landscape associations, while the boreal predator (red fox) appeared strongly dependent on productive habitats and ptarmigan abundance. Thus, we suggest that the unpredictability of food resources determines the winter ecology of the cold specialist predators, while the boreal predator relies on resource rich habitats. The constraints imposed by winters and temporary resource lows should therefore counteract productivity-driven ecosystem change and have a stabilizing effect on community structure. Hence, the interplay between summer and winter conditions should determine the rate of Arctic ecosystem change in the context of global warming.

Stoessel M, Elmhgen B, Vinka M, Hellström P, Angerbjön A (2019) The fluctuating world of a tundra predator guild: Bottom-up constraints overrule top-down species interactions in winter. Ecography 42: 488-499. Link to journal (free prf download)

Rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta)
on snow in summer