Aspin, T.W.H., Khamis, K., Matthews, T.J., Milner, A.M., O’Callaghan, M.J., Trimmer, M., Woodward, G. & Ledger, M.E. (2019) Extreme drought pushes stream invertebrate communities over functional thresholds.Global Change Biology, 25, 230-244. DOI:10.1111/gcb.14495 (IF2017 8,997; Q1 Ecology)
Functional traits are increasingly being used to predict extinction risks and range shifts under long‐term climate change scenarios, but have rarely been used to study vulnerability to extreme climatic events, such as supraseasonal droughts. In streams, drought intensification can cross thresholds of habitat loss, where marginal changes in environmental conditions trigger disproportionate biotic responses. However, these thresholds have been studied only from a structural perspective, and the existence of functional nonlinearity remains unknown. We explored trends in invertebrate community functional traits along a gradient of drought intensity, simulated over 18 months, using mesocosms analogous to lowland headwater streams. We modelled the responses of 16 traits based on a priori predictions of trait filtering by drought, and also examined the responses of trait profile groups (TPGs) identified via hierarchical cluster analysis. As responses to drought intensification were both linear and nonlinear, generalized additive models (GAMs) were chosen to model response curves, with the slopes of fitted splines used to detect functional thresholds during drought. Drought triggered significant responses in 12 (75%) of the a priori‐selected traits. Behavioural traits describing movement (dispersal, locomotion) and diet were sensitive to moderate‐intensity drought, as channels fragmented into isolated pools. By comparison, morphological and physiological traits showed little response until surface water was lost, at which point we observed sudden shifts in body size, respiration mode and thermal tolerance. Responses varied widely among TPGs, ranging from population collapses of non‐aerial dispersers as channels fragmented to irruptions of small, eurythermic dietary generalists upon extreme dewatering. Our study demonstrates for the first time that relatively small changes in drought intensity can trigger disproportionately large functional shifts in stream communities, suggesting that traits‐based approaches could be particularly useful for diagnosing catastrophic ecological responses to global change.