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Adaptive potential of a Pacific salmon challenged by climate change


Pacific salmon provide critical sustenance for millions of people worldwide and have far-reaching impacts on the productivity of ecosystems. Rising temperatures now threaten the persistence of these important fishes1,2, yet it remains unknown whether populations can adapt. Here, we provide the first evidence that a Pacific salmon has both physiological and genetic capacities to increase its thermal tolerance in response to rising temperatures. In juvenile chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), a 4 °C increase in developmental temperature was associated with a 2 °C increase in key measures of the thermal performance of cardiac function3,4. Moreover, additive genetic effects significantly influenced several measures of cardiac capacity, indicative of heritable variation on which selection can act. However, a lack of both plasticity and genetic variation was found for the arrhythmic temperature of the heart, constraining this upper thermal limit to a maximum of 24.5 ± 2.2 °C. Linking this constraint on thermal tolerance with present-day river temperatures and projected warming scenarios5, we predict a 17% chance of catastrophic loss in the population by 2100 based on the average warming projection, with this chance increasing to 98% in the maximum warming scenario. Climate change mitigation is thus necessary to ensure the future viability of Pacific salmon populations.

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Figure 1: Mean increase in maximum heart rate (fHmax) among all offspring from the +0 °C (black line) and +4 °C (grey line) treatment groups of Quinsam River chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha).
Figure 2: Norms of reaction among paternal half-sib families of Quinsam River chinook salmon (O. tshawytscha).


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We thank A. Heath and the staff at Yellow Island Aquaculture Ltd for their support with fish husbandry, A. Berchtold for assisting with the heart rate experiment, D. MacKinlay and the staff at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Quinsam River salmon hatchery for their help with gamete collection, and S. Garner for help with the climate change susceptibility model. This study was supported by Discovery grants to B.D.N. and A.P.F. from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. A.P.F. holds a Canada Research Chair in Fish Physiology, Culture and Conservation. All experiments followed ethical guidelines from the Canadian Council on Animal Care as reviewed and approved by the Animal Use Subcommittees at the University of Western Ontario (protocol no. 2010-214) and the University of British Columbia (protocol no. 810-022).

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All authors designed the experiment; N.J.M. conducted the experiment and data analyses; J.W.H. contributed materials and logistical support during the experiment; N.J.M., A.P.F. and B.D.N. wrote the paper. All authors provided intellectual input, and read and approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Bryan D. Neff.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Muñoz, N., Farrell, A., Heath, J. et al. Adaptive potential of a Pacific salmon challenged by climate change. Nature Clim Change 5, 163–166 (2015).

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