Tolerance limit for fish growth exceeded by warming waters

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

Climate change can affect organisms both directly, by affecting their physiology, growth, and behaviour1, and indirectly, for example through effects on ecosystem structure and function1, 2. For ectotherms, or ‘cold-blooded’ animals, warming will directly affect their metabolism, with growth rates in temperate species predicted to increase initially as temperatures rise, but then decline as individuals struggle to maintain cardiac function and respiration in the face of increased metabolic demands3, 4. We provide evidence consistent with this prediction for a marine fish (Cheilodactylus spectabilis) in the Tasman Sea; one of the most rapidly warming regions of the Southern Hemisphere ocean5. We estimated changes in the species’ growth rate over a 90-year period using otoliths—bony structures that fish use for orientation and detection of movement—and compared these changes to temperature trends across the species’ distribution. Increasing temperatures coincide with increased growth for populations in the middle of the species range, but with reduced growth for those at the warm northern edge of the species’ distribution, indicating that temperatures may have already reached levels associated with increased metabolic costs. If warming continues, the direct metabolic effects of increasing temperatures on this species may lead to declining productivity and range contraction.

At a glance


  1. Theorized and measured effects of temperature on growth.
    Figure 1: Theorized and measured effects of temperature on growth.

    a, There is a near-linear increase in growth with temperature over a mid-range in temperatures, bounded by the lower critical temperature (TCL) and pejus temperature (TP ). At temperatures above the growth tolerance limit (>TP), growth rate declines with increasing temperature to the upper critical temperature (TCU) whereafter growth ceases. b, Mean year-class-specific growth increment (ages seven to nine years) is compared with temperatures over the annual growth period (October to September) for the mid-range Australian (Victoria, squares; northeast coast of Tasmania, closed circles; east coast of Tasmania, open circles; southeast coast of Tasmania, crosses) and extreme New Zealand (North Island, triangles) populations. Trend lines are linear regressions (grey thick lines) with 95% confidence intervals around the predictions (grey thin lines). Positive temperature effects on growth were found for all Australian populations (linear regression; 38≤n≤79 year-classes; 0.09≤r2≤0.41; P<0.015; slope=2.2–5.3μm°C−1), whereas negative temperature effects on growth were indicated for the New Zealand population (linear regression; n=29 year-classes; r2=0.15; P=0.041; slope=−5.5μm°C−1). TP approximates the pejus temperature (~17°C) where after increases in temperature result in decreases in growth. We estimate TP from the maximum of the nonlinear least-squares regression fit (black dashed line): growth rate=290·(5.9/17.3·(temperature/17.3)4.9·e−(temperature/17.3)5.9); r2=0.29;  P<0.0001.

  2. Otolith radius as a function of fish size.
    Figure 2: Otolith radius as a function of fish size.

    Otolith radius increases with fish size for a, fish aged seven years (linear regression, otolith radius=5.3·fish length+505μm; n=82 fish; r2=0.083; P=0.0088) and c, nine years (linear regression, otolith radius=4.7·fish length+583μm; n=52 fish; r2=0.090; P=0.031). b, Effects of other factors are reflected in the residual variability and non-significant relation for fish aged eight years (linear regression, n=54 fish; P=0.25). Trend lines are linear regressions (solid lines) with 95% confidence intervals around the predictions (dashed lines).

  3. Preliminary estimates of temperature effects on swimming activity in banded morwong.
    Figure 3: Preliminary estimates of temperature effects on swimming activity in banded morwong.

    a, Temperature effects on oxygen consumption at 0.9ms−1 (mean ± standard error, based on n=2 fish and >12 trials). b, The swimming speeds (mean ± standard error, based on n=2 fish and >12 trials) causing anaerobic stress at different temperatures. Spawning swimming speeds (1ms−1) were not sustainable at temperatures >14°C, with fish exhibiting signs of anaerobic stress.


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Author information


  1. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (Australia) Climate Adaptation Flagship, GPO Box 1538, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • A. B. Neuheimer &
    • R. E. Thresher
  2. Fisheries, Aquaculture and Coasts Centre, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 49, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

    • J. M. Lyle &
    • J. M. Semmens
  3. Present address: Marine Ecology, Department of Biological Sciences, Aarhus University, Bygning 1135, Ole Worms allé 1, 8000 Århus C, Denmark

    • A. B. Neuheimer


All authors contributed to the design of the study. A.B.N. prepared (where necessary), aged and measured all otoliths, and analysed resulting growth increment and temperature data. J.M.S. designed, implemented and analysed the activity experiments. A.B.N. prepared the manuscript. R.E.T., J.M.L. and J.M.S. edited the manuscript.

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