A significant global challenge lies in our current inability to anticipate, and therefore prepare for, critical ecological thresholds (i.e. tipping points in ecosystems). This deficit stems largely from an inadequate understanding of the many complex interactions between species and the environment at the ecosystem level, and the paucity of mechanistic models relating environment to population dynamics at the species level. In marine ecosystems, abundant, short-lived and fast-growing species such as anchovies or squids, consistently function as ‘keystone’ groups whose population dynamics affect entire ecosystems. Increasing exploitation coupled with climate change impacts has the potential to affect these ecological groups and consequently, the entire marine ecosystem. There are currently very few models that predict the impact of climate change on these keystone groups. Here we use a combination of individual-based bioenergetics and stage-structured population models to characterize the fundamental capacity of cephalopods to respond to climate change. We demonstrate the potential for, and mechanisms behind, two unfavourable climate-change-induced thresholds in future population dynamics. Although one threshold was the direct consequence of a decrease in incubation time caused by ocean warming, the other threshold was linked to survivorship, implying the possibility of management through a modification of fishing mortality. Additional substantive changes in phenology were also predicted, with a possible loss in population resilience. Our results demonstrate the feasibility of predicting complex nonlinear dynamics with a reasonably simplistic mechanistic model, and highlight the necessity of developing such approaches for other species if attempts to moderate the impact of climate change on natural resources are to be effective.
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