Spatial distributions of Southern Ocean mesozooplankton communities have been resilient to long-term surface warming
The biogeographic response of oceanic planktonic communities to climatic change has a large influence on the future stability of marine food webs and the functioning of global biogeochemical cycles. Temperature plays a pivotal role in determining the distribution of these communities and ocean warming has the potential to cause major distributional shifts, particularly in polar regions where the thermal envelope is narrow. We considered the impact of long-term ocean warming on the spatial distribution of Southern Ocean mesozooplankton communities through examining plankton abundance in relation to sea surface temperature between two distinct periods, separated by around 60 years. Analyses considered 16 dominant mesozooplankton taxa (in terms of biomass and abundance) in the southwest Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean, from net samples and in situ temperature records collected during the Discovery Investigations (1926–1938) and contemporary campaigns (1996–2013). Sea surface temperature was found to have increased significantly by 0.74°C between the two eras. The corresponding sea surface temperature at which community abundance peaked was also significantly higher in contemporary times, by 0.98°C. Spatial projections indicated that the geographical location of community peak abundance had remained the same between the two eras despite the poleward advance of sea surface isotherms. If the community had remained within the same thermal envelope as in the 1920s–1930s, community peak abundance would be 500 km further south in the contemporary era. Studies in the northern hemisphere have found that dominant taxa, such as calanoid copepods, have conserved their thermal niches and tracked surface isotherms polewards. The fact that this has not occurred in the Southern Ocean suggests that other selective pressures, particularly food availability and the properties of underlying water masses, place greater constraints on spatial distributions in this region. It further demonstrates that this community is thermally resilient to present levels of sea surface warming.