Vulnerability to climate change increases with trophic level in terrestrial organisms

Carmen R. B. da Silva, Julian E. Beaman, Jacob P. Youngblood, Vanessa Kellermann, Sarah E. Diamond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


The resilience of ecosystem function under global climate change is governed by individual species vulnerabilities and the functional groups they contribute to (e.g. decomposition, primary production, pollination, primary, secondary and tertiary consumption). Yet it remains unclear whether species that contribute to different functional groups, which underpin ecosystem function, differ in their vulnerability to climate change. We used existing upper thermal limit data across a range of terrestrial species (N = 1701) to calculate species warming margins (degrees distance between a species upper thermal limit and the maximum environmental temperature they inhabit), as a metric of climate change vulnerability. We examined whether species that comprise different functional groups exhibit differential vulnerability to climate change, and if vulnerability trends change across geographic space while considering evolutionary history. Primary producers had the broadest warming margins across the globe (μ = 18.72 °C) and tertiary consumers had the narrowest warming margins (μ = 9.64 °C), where vulnerability tended to increase with trophic level. Warming margins had a nonlinear relationship (second-degree polynomial) with absolute latitude, where warming margins were narrowest at about 33°, and were broader at lower and higher absolute latitudes. Evolutionary history explained significant variation in species warming margins, as did the methodology used to estimate species upper thermal limits. We investigated if variation in body mass across the trophic levels could explain why higher trophic level organisms had narrower warming margins than lower trophic level organisms, however, we did not find support for this hypothesis. This study provides a critical first step in linking individual species vulnerabilities with whole ecosystem responses to climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number161049
Number of pages10
JournalScience of The Total Environment
Early online date20 Dec 2022
Publication statusPublished - 20 Mar 2023


  • Climate change
  • Ecosystem function
  • Functional group
  • Trophic level
  • Vulnerability
  • Warming margin


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