Heat tolerance predicts the importance of species interaction effects as the climate changes

Few studies have quantified the relative importance of direct effects of climate change on communities versus indirect effects that are mediated thorough species interactions, and the limited evidence is conflicting. Trait-based approaches have been popular in studies of climate change, but can they be used to estimate direct versus indirect effects? At the species level, thermal tolerance is a trait that is often used to predict winners and losers under scenarios of climate change. But thermal tolerance might also inform when species interactions are likely to be important because only subsets of species will be able to exploit the available warmer climatic niche space, and competition may intensify in the remaining, compressed cooler climatic niche space. Here, we explore the relative roles of the direct effects of temperature change and indirect effects of species interactions on forest ant communities that were heated as part of a large-scale climate manipulation at high- and low-latitude sites in eastern North America. Overall, we found mixed support for the importance of negative species interactions (competition), but found that the magnitude of these interaction effects was predictable based on the heat tolerance of the focal species. Forager abundance and nest site occupancy of heat-intolerant species were more often influenced by negative interactions with other species than by direct effects of temperature. Our findings suggest that measures of species-specific heat tolerance may roughly predict when species interactions will influence responses to global climate change.