Warming impairs trophic transfer efficiency in a long-term field experiment

Diego R. Barneche, Chris J. Hulatt, Matteo Dossena, Daniel Padfield, Guy Woodward, Mark Trimmer, Gabriel Yvon-Durocher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Citations (Scopus)


In natural ecosystems, the efficiency of energy transfer from resources to consumers determines the biomass structure of food webs. As a general rule, about 10% of the energy produced in one trophic level makes it up to the next1–3. Recent theory suggests this energy transfer could be further constrained if rising temperatures increase metabolic growth costs4, although experimental confirmation in whole ecosystems is lacking. We quantified nitrogen transfer efficiency (a proxy for overall energy transfer) in freshwater plankton in artificial ponds exposed to 7 years of experimental warming. We provide the first direct experimental evidence that, relative to ambient conditions, 4 °C of warming can decrease trophic transfer efficiency by up to 56%. In addition, both phytoplankton and zooplankton biomass were lower in the warmed ponds, indicating major shifts in energy uptake, transformation and transfer5,6. These new findings reconcile observed warming-driven changes in individual-level growth costs and carbon-use efficiency across diverse taxa4,7–10 with increases in the ratio of total respiration to gross primary production at the ecosystem level11–13. Our results imply that an increasing proportion of the carbon fixed by photosynthesis will be lost to the atmosphere as the planet warms, impairing energy flux through food chains, with negative implications for larger consumers and the functioning of entire ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)76-79
Number of pages4
Issue number7852
Early online date1 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2021


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