Reduced early life growth and survival in a fish in direct response to increased carbon dioxide

Journal name:
Nature Climate Change
Year published:
Published online

Absorption of anthropogenic carbon dioxide by the world’s oceans is causing mankind’s ‘other CO2 problem’, ocean acidification1. Although this process will challenge marine organisms that synthesize calcareous exoskeletons or shells2, 3, 4, 5, 6, it is unclear how it will affect internally calcifying organisms, such as marine fish7. Adult fish tolerate short-term exposures to CO2 levels that exceed those predicted for the next 300 years (~2,000ppm; ref. 8), but potential effects of increased CO2 on growth and survival during the early life stages of fish remain poorly understood7. Here we show that the exposure of early life stages of a common estuarine fish (Menidia beryllina) to CO2 concentrations expected in the world’s oceans later this century caused severely reduced survival and growth rates. When compared with present-day CO2 levels (~400ppm), exposure of M. beryllina embryos to ~1,000ppm until one week post-hatch reduced average survival and length by 74% and 18%, respectively. The egg stage was significantly more vulnerable to high CO2-induced mortality than the post-hatch larval stage. These findings challenge the belief that ocean acidification will not affect fish populations, because even small changes in early life survival can generate large fluctuations in adult-fish abundance9, 10.

At a glance


  1. Effect of increased CO2 on early life M. beryllina survival and length.
    Figure 1: Effect of increased CO2 on early life M. beryllina survival and length.

    a, Survival was averaged across replicates (experiment 1, n=3; experiments 2, 3, n=4; experiment 4, n=6; experiment 5, n=5) for each experiment and CO2level. b, Weighted means (±1 s.e.m.) of standard length averaged across replicates per experiment and CO2 level. Pooled data in a and b were fitted with an exponential decay model (thick grey line) with 95% confidence intervals (thin grey lines). Experiment 1, red squares; experiment 2, blue down triangles; experiment 3, green diamonds; experiment 4, yellow circles; experiment 5, black up triangles. Points represent means±1 s.d.

  2. CO2 sensitivity of the egg versus early post-hatch stage in M. beryllina.
    Figure 2: CO2 sensitivity of the egg versus early post-hatch stage in M. beryllina.

    Bars depict average survival (±1 s.e.m.) 10 days after fertilization in control (410ppm), increased (780ppm) and ‘switch’, where CO2 concentration was increased only after eggs hatched (5 days post-fertilization), treatments. Precise CO2 levels and complete carbonate chemistry from experiments appear in Supplementary Tables S1–S5.

  3. M. berylina larvae exposed to normal and elevated levels of CO2.
    Figure 3: M. berylina larvae exposed to normal and elevated levels of CO2.

    ac, Larvae with curved or curled bodies were significantly more common at increased (b,c) when compared with control (a) CO2 levels. Scale bar=1mm.


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  1. School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794, USA

    • Hannes Baumann,
    • Stephanie C. Talmage &
    • Christopher J. Gobler


H.B., S.C.T. and C.J.G. designed the experiments, conducted the experiments, generated the data, analysed samples, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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