Local-scale climatic refugia offer sanctuary for a habitat-forming species during a marine heatwave

Verdura, JanaSantamaría, Jorge Ballesteros, Enric Smale, Dan A.Cefalì, Maria ElenaGolo, RaülDe Caralt, S. Vergés, AlbaCebrian, Emma.  Journal of Ecology : doi:10.1111/1365-2745.13599 (2021)  DIGITAL CSIC

1. Gradual climate change and discrete extreme climatic events have driven shifts in the structure of populations and the distribution of species in many marine ecosystems. The most profound impacts of recent warming trends have been generally observed at species’ warm edges and on large conspicuous species. However, given that different species and populations exhibit different responses to warming, and that responses are highly variable at regional scales, there is a need to broaden the evidence to include less conspicuous species and to focus on both local-and regional-scale processes.

2. We examined the population dynamics of canopy-forming seaweed populations situated at the core range of their distribution during a regional marine heatwave (MHW) event that occurred in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, to determine between-site variability in relation to the intensity of the MHW. We combined field observations with a thermo-tolerance experiment to elucidate mechanisms underlying observed responses.

3. Despite our study populations are located in the species core range, the MHW was concomitant with a high mortality and structural shifts in only one of the two surveyed populations, most likely due to differences in habitat characteristics between sites (e.g. degree of shelter and seawater transfer). The experiment showed high mortalities at temperatures of 28°C, having the most severe implications for early life stages and fertility, which is consistent with warming being the cause of population changes in the field. Crucially, the regional-scale quantification of the MHW (as described by satellite-derived SSTs) did not capture local-scale variation in MHW conditions at the study sites, which likely explained variation in population-level responses to warming.

4. Synthesis. Enclosed and semi-enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean Sea, often highly impacted by human perturbations, are also global hotspots for ocean warming and are highly susceptible to future MHWs. Our findings highlight that local-scale variability in the magnitude of extreme climatic events can lead to local extinctions of already fragmented populations of habitat-forming seaweeds, even towards the species’ core range. However, our results highlight the potential for local-scale climatic refugia, which could be identified and managed to safeguard the persistence of canopy-forming seaweeds.