Global Change drives Modern Plankton Communities away from the Pre-Industrial State

The ocean—the Earth’s largest ecosystem—is increasingly affected by anthropogenic climate change. Large and globally consistent shifts have been detected in species phenology, range extension and community composition in marine ecosystems. 

However, despite evidence for ongoing change, it remains unknown whether marine ecosystems have entered an anthropocene state beyond the natural decadal to centennial variability. This is because most observational time series lack a long-term baseline, and the few time series that extend back into the pre-industrial era have limited spatial coverage. 

In this study, Lukas Jonkers et al. use the unique potential of the sedimentary record of planktonic foraminifera—ubiquitous marine zooplankton—to provide a global pre-industrial baseline for the composition of modern species communities. They use a global compilation of 3,774 seafloor-derived planktonic foraminifera communities of pre-industrial age and compare these with communities from sediment-trap time series that have sampled plankton flux since AD 1978 (33 sites, 87 observation years). 

Jonkers and colleagues find that the anthropocene assemblages differ from their pre-industrial counterparts in proportion to the historical change in temperature. They observe community changes towards warmer or cooler compositions that are consistent with historical changes in temperature in 85% of the cases. These observations not only confirm the existing evidence for changes in marine zooplankton communities in historical times, but also demonstrate that anthropocene communities of a globally distributed zooplankton group systematically differ from their unperturbed pre-industrial state.

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