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Experimental evidence of spatial signatures of approaching regime shifts in macroalgal canopies

Rindi, L., Dal Bello, M., Benedetti‐Cecchi, L.
Ecology 2018 v.99 no.8 pp. 1709-1715
canopy, ecosystems, field experimentation, littoral zone, macroalgae, statistical analysis, variance
Developing early warning signals to predict regime shifts in ecosystems is a central issue in current ecological research. While there are many studies addressing temporal early warning indicators, research into spatial indicators is far behind, with field experiments even more rare. Here, we tested the performance of spatial early warning signals in an intertidal macroalgal system, where removal of algal canopies pushed the system toward a tipping point (corresponding to approximately 75% of canopy loss), marking the transition between a canopy‐ to a turf‐dominated state. We performed a two‐year experiment where spatial early warning indicators were assessed in transects where the canopy was differentially removed (from 0 to 100%). Unlike Moran correlation coefficient at lag‐1, spatial variance, skewness, and spatial spectra at low frequency increased along the gradient of canopy degradation and dropped, or did not show any further increase beyond the transition point from a canopy‐ to a turf‐dominated state (100% canopy removal). Our study provides direct evidence of the suitability of spatial early warning signals to anticipate regime shifts in natural ecosystems, emphasizing the importance of field experiments as a powerful tool to establish causal relationships between environmental stressors and early warning indicators.