Analysis of trophic interactions reveals highly plastic response to climate change in a tri-trophic High-Arctic ecosystem

As a response to current climate changes, individual species have changed various biological traits, illustrating an inherent phenotypic plasticity. However, as species are embedded in an ecological network characterised by multiple consumer–resource interactions, ecological mismatches are likely to arise when interacting species do not respond homogeneously. The approach of biological networks analysis calls for the use of structural equation modelling (SEM), a multidimensional analytical setup that has proven particularly useful for analysing multiple interactions across trophic levels. Here we apply SEM to a long-term dataset from a High-Arctic ecosystem to analyse how phenological responses across three trophic levels are coupled to snowmelt patterns and how changes may cascade through consumer–resource interactions. Specifically, the model included the effect of snowmelt on a High-Arctic tri-trophic system of flowers, insects and waders (Charadriiformes), with latent factors representing phenology (timing of life history events) and performance (abundance or reproduction success) for each trophic level. The effects derived from the model demonstrated that the time of snowmelt directly affected plant and arthropod phenology as well as the performance of all included trophic levels. Additionally, timing of snowmelt appeared to indirectly influence wader phenology as well as plant, arthropod and wader performance through effects on adjacent trophic levels and lagged effects. The results from the tri-trophic community presented here emphasise that effects of climate on species in consumer–resource systems may propagate through trophic levels.