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Effects of elevated CO2 on fish behaviour undiminished by transgenerational acclimation



Behaviour and sensory performance of marine fishes are impaired at CO2 levels projected to occur in the ocean in the next 50–100 years1,2,3,4,5, and there is limited potential for within-generation acclimation to elevated CO2 (refs 6, 7). However, whether fish behaviour can acclimate or adapt to elevated CO2 over multiple generations remains unanswered. We tested for transgenerational acclimation of reef fish olfactory preferences and behavioural lateralization at moderate (656 μatm) and high (912 μatm) end-of-century CO2 projections. Juvenile spiny damselfish, Acanthochromis polyacanthus, from control parents (446 μatm) exhibited an innate avoidance to chemical alarm cue (CAC) when reared in control conditions. In contrast, juveniles lost their innate avoidance of CAC and even became strongly attracted to CAC when reared at elevated CO2 levels. Juveniles from parents maintained at mid-CO2 and high-CO2 levels also lost their innate avoidance of CAC when reared in elevated CO2, demonstrating no capacity for transgenerational acclimation of olfactory responses. Behavioural lateralization was also disrupted for juveniles reared under elevated CO2, regardless of parental conditioning. Our results show minimal potential for transgenerational acclimation in this fish, suggesting that genetic adaptation will be necessary to overcome the effects of ocean acidification on behaviour.

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Figure 1: Preference of juvenile fish for water streams containing chemical alarm cues presented in a two-channel flume chamber.
Figure 2: Absolute lateralization (LA) for juvenile fish presented with a T-maze choice chamber.


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We thank B. Lawes, S. Wever and A. Thompson for continued support of laboratory set-up and maintenance. Special thanks to J. Donelson, M. Mitchell and J. White for assistance with collections and to K. Corkill for assistance with experiments. This study was funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University.

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P.L.M., M.J.W. and M.I.M. designed the study; M.J.W. performed the experiments; J.Q.W. analysed the data; S-A.W. and M.J.W. controlled the CO2 system; M.J.W. and P.L.M. co-wrote the paper; all authors provided important comments and approved the paper.

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Correspondence to Megan J. Welch.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Welch, M., Watson, SA., Welsh, J. et al. Effects of elevated CO2 on fish behaviour undiminished by transgenerational acclimation. Nature Clim Change 4, 1086–1089 (2014).

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