Warmer temperatures reduce the influence of an important keystone predator
Predator-prey interactions may be strongly influenced by temperature variations in marine ecosystems. Consequently, climate change may alter the importance of predators with repercussions for ecosystem functioning and structure. In North-eastern Pacific kelp forests, the starfish Pycnopodia helianthoides is known to be an important predator of the purple sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Here we investigated the influence of water temperature on this predator-prey interaction by: (1) assessing the spatial distribution and temporal dynamics of both species across a temperature gradient in the northern Channel Islands, California, and (2) investigating how the feeding rate of P. helianthoides on S. purpuratus is affected by temperature in laboratory tests. On average, at sites where mean annual temperatures were <14°C, P. helianthoides were common, S. purpuratus was rare and kelp was persistent, whereas where mean annual temperatures exceeded 14°C, P. helianthoides and kelp were rare and S. purpuratus abundant. Temperature was found to be the primary environmental factor influencing P. helianthoides abundance, and in turn P. helianthoides was the primary determinant of S. purpuratus abundance. In the laboratory, temperatures >16°C (equivalent to summer temperatures at sites where P. helianthoides were rare) reduced predation rates regardless of predator and prey sizes, although larger sea urchins were consumed only by large starfishes. These results clearly demonstrate that the effect of P. helianthoides on S. purpuratus is strongly mediated by temperature, and that the local abundance and predation rate of P. helianthoides on sea urchins will likely decrease with future warming. A reduction in top-down control on sea urchins, combined with other expected impacts of climate change on kelp, poses significant risks for the persistence of kelp forests in the future.