Temporal variation in pelagic food chain length in response to environmental change
Climate variability alters nitrogen cycling, primary productivity, and dissolved oxygen concentration in marine ecosystems. We examined the role of this variability (as measured by six variables) on food chain length (FCL) in the California Current (CC) by reconstructing a time series of amino acid–specific 15N values derived from common dolphins, an apex pelagic predator, and using two FCL proxies. Strong declines in FCL were observed after the 1997–1999 El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event. Bayesian models revealed longer FCLs under intermediate conditions for surface temperature, chlorophyll concentration, multivariate ENSO index, and total plankton volume but not for hypoxic depth and nitrate concentration. Our results challenge the prevalent paradigm that suggested long-term stability in the food web structure in the CC and, instead, reveal that pelagic food webs respond strongly to disturbances associated with ENSO events, local oceanography, and ongoing changes in climate.