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Traits explain community disassembly and trophic contraction following experimental environmental change


Correspondence: Zoë Lindo, tel. + 519 661 2111 ext 82284, Fax + 519 661 3935, e-mail:


Many ecosystems are currently undergoing dramatic changes in biodiversity due to habitat loss and climate change. Responses to global change at the community level are poorly understood, as are the impacts of community disassembly on ecosystem-level processes. Uncertainties remain regarding the patterns of extirpation and persistence under single vs. multiple forms of environmental change. Here, we use a trait-based and food web approach to examine the effects of experimentally changing moisture, temperature and habitat ‘openness’ on a functionally important group of microarthropods associated with a boreal forest floor bryosphere (detrital moss) system. Overall, the outcome of community disassembly was mediated by the correlation between our environmental factors and species traits, particularly body size. Minor increases in summer temperatures maintained greater species richness, whereas drought stress had a significant negative effect on community-level abundance and richness. These effects were reflected in modifications to the community-wide body-size spectra. Habitat openness alleviated biodiversity loss in the larger-bodied species of the most abundant taxonomic group, but did not fully mitigate the effects of drought. The most striking result of this experiment was an overall contraction of the food web among persistent species under drought stress (i.e. those not extirpated by environmental change). These results suggest that major changes in boreal microarthropod community structure are likely to occur in response to common forms of global change. Moreover, the contraction in trophic structure even amongst tolerant species suggests that ecosystem function within the bryosphere can be altered by environmental change.