Understanding the ecological mechanisms that underlie species diversity decline in response to environmental change has become an urgent objective in current ecological research. Not only direct (lethal) effects on single species but also indirect effects altering biotic interactions between species within and across trophic levels comprise the driving force of ecosystem change. In an experimental marine benthic microalgae–grazer system we tested for indirect effects of moderate temperature change on algal diversity by manipulation of temperature, nutrient supply and grazer density. In our model system warming did not exert indirect effects on microalgal diversity via effects on resource competition. However, moderate warming strengthened consumer control and thereby indirectly affected algal community structure which ultimately resulted in decreased diversity. Only in low temperature and low nutrient regimes did the antagonizing mechanisms of bottom–up and top–down regulation establish a balancing effect on algal diversity within 29 days (corresponding to 15–29 algae generations). Effects of thermal habitat change did not appear before 9–18 algae generations, which points to the relevance of longer-term experiments and ecological monitoring in order to separate transient biotic responses and subtle changes of community dynamics in consequence to global change.