Changes in ant community composition caused by 20 years of experimental warming vs. 13 years of natural climate shift

Sean B. Menke, Lake Forest College
John Harte, Univ Calif Berkeley
Robert R. Dunn, N Carolina State Univ


Predicting the effects of climate change on community composition is hampered by the lack of integration between long term data sets tracking the effects of natural climate change and the results of experimental climate manipulations. Here we compare the effects of change in climate through time to experimental warming on the composition of high elevation ant communities at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in Gothic Colorado. We take advantage of a 20-year continuously running warming experiment which has increased soil temperature by 1.5 degrees C and advanced snowmelt by 10 days and compare the effects of this experimental warming to natural changes in climate over the past 13 years across three sites spread along a 420-m elevation gradient representing a roughly 1 degrees C difference in average annual soil temperature and average advanced snowmelt of 2 weeks. We compared ant community data collected at all four sites in 1997 to collections made at the same sites in 2010. From 1997 to 2010 there was a community wide shift in ant composition along the natural climate gradient with ant communities shifting to higher elevations. Ant communities in the experimental warming site also changed, but they shifted orthogonally to those along the gradient. Interestingly, after 20 years of experimental warming, there is little discernible effect on ant communities in experimentally warmed plots compared to control plots. This discrepancy between the climate manipulation and elevation gradient is probably an effect of the spatial scale of the experimental warming. Ants respond to experimental warming in complex ways due to the physical location of their nests and their foraging area. This is a concern for warming experiments, but one that is hard to address for species that cover even modest areas in their foraging.