Warming alters the size spectrum and shifts the distribution of biomass in freshwater ecosystems


G. Yvon-Durocher, tel. +44 20 7882 3640, e-mail:; Dr. G. Woodward, e-mail:


Organism size is one of the key determinants of community structure, and its relationship with abundance can describe how biomass is partitioned among the biota within an ecosystem. An outdoor freshwater mesocosm experiment was used to determine how warming of∼4 °C would affect the size, biomass and taxonomic structure of planktonic communities. Warming increased the steepness of the community size spectrum by increasing the prevalence of small organisms, primarily within the phytoplankton assemblage and it also reduced the mean and maximum size of phytoplankton by approximately one order of magnitude. The observed shifts in phytoplankton size structure were reflected in changes in phytoplankton community composition, though zooplankton taxonomic composition was unaffected by warming. Furthermore, warming reduced community biomass and total phytoplankton biomass, although zooplankton biomass was unaffected. This resulted in an increase in the zooplankton to phytoplankton biomass ratio in the warmed mesocosms, which could be explained by faster turnover within the phytoplankton assemblages. Overall, warming shifted the distribution of phytoplankton size towards smaller individuals with rapid turnover and low standing biomass, resulting in a reorganization of the biomass structure of the food webs. These results indicate future environmental warming may have profound effects on the structure and functioning of aquatic communities and ecosystems.