Changing ocean alters food web

Study documents shifts caused by warming seas, other stressors

A chemical analysis of dolphin skin cells helped scientists track changes in the ocean food chain. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Big fish eat little fish is the conventional wisdom of the sea, but it’s not always quite so simple. When Global warming and El Niño combined in 2015 and 2016 to warm the Pacific Ocean to new record-high temperatures, it shifted the food chain significantly, according to scientists with NOAA, the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

According to their new study, published in the journal Science Advances,  the food web “changed in response to various natural and anthropogenic related stressors,” said lead author Rocio I. Ruiz-Cooley, formerly of NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center and now at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. “This tells us that the food web is very dynamic, and reveals changes with the ecosystem around it.”

The researchers studied skin cells of common dolphins for chemical clues about the length of the marine food chain, which begins with tiny plankton and continues as species eat them, and other species eat those species. Large predators such as dolphins occupy the top of the food chain, their cells carrying chemical information from all the species beneath them.

They were able to compare the changes during the recent years to samples collected during the past two decades. The finding helps scientists understand the health and resilience of the ecosystem, she said. A longer food chain is more typical, and reflects a relatively diverse community, while shorter chains occur during extreme environmental conditions and suggest a decline in that diversity.

During strong climate perturbations such as the 1997-1999 El Niño Southern Oscillation that included the most intense El Niño event of the century, which brought unusual warming to the U.S. West Coast, the food chain in the California Current shortened sharply, the scientists found. That coincided with declines in ocean productivity such as reduced growth of plankton, declines of some fish and birds and expanded ranges of some species such as jumbo squid, perhaps as they searched for scarce food or followed favorable temperatures.

“These changes in life history traits and population dynamics likely reduced and/or removed populations of many species, including important components of the food web,” in turn shrinking the food chain, scientists wrote in the new report. Predators may have exacerbated this impact as they fed on what was left and reduced the length of the food chain that supported them. Although some species such as jellyfish and tunicates such as salp may multiply quickly to fill such gaps, they provide so little nutrition that most predators do not pursue them and the food chain remains short.

The research demonstrates that top predators such as the common dolphin can serve as important indicators of the length of the food chain, which in turn provides insight into the ecosystem, Ruiz-Cooley said. The study drew upon the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s collection of skin tissue samples gathered from dolphins inadvertently entangled in gillnets off Southern California from 1991 to 2008, highlighting the value of that collection over time.

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