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Threatened salmon rely on a rare life history strategy in a warming landscape


Rare phenotypes and behaviours within a population are often overlooked, yet they may serve a heightened role for species imperilled by rapid warming. In threatened spring-run Chinook salmon spawning at the southern edge of the species range, we show late-migrating juveniles are critical to cohort success in years characterized by droughts and ocean heatwaves. Late migrants rely on cool river temperatures over summer, increasingly rare due to the combined effects of warming and impassable dams. Despite the dominance of late migrants, other strategies played an important role in many years. Our results suggest that further loss of phenotypic diversity will have critical impacts on population persistence in a warming climate. Predicted thermally suitable river conditions for late migrants will shrink rapidly in the future and will be largely relegated above impassable dams. Reconnecting diverse habitat mosaics to support phenotypic diversity will be integral to the long-term persistence of this species.

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Fig. 1: Spring-run Chinook salmon life history diversity.
Fig. 2: Migrant size distributions at natal and freshwater exit.
Fig. 3: Migrant sizes and life history diversity across years.
Fig. 4: Early-life salmon growth across life history types.
Fig. 5: Central Valley habitat suitability mapping under current and future climate conditions.

Data availability

The datasets generated and used for the otolith strontium isotope and early-life freshwater growth analyses and to produce Figs. 14 and Supplementary Figs. 13 are available on GitHub at (ref. 71). The stream temperature and spring-run Chinook spatial distribution shapefiles generated for the juvenile spring-run Chinook thermal habitat suitability assessment and used in Fig. 5, Extended Data Fig. 1 and Supplementary Fig. 4 are available on DRYAD at (ref. 72).

Code availability

The code for the otolith strontium isotope and early-life growth analyses is posted on GitHub at


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We thank C. Harvey-Arrison and M. Johnson, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), for providing Mill and Deer Creek otoliths and rotary screw trap data used in this study. The funding for the otolith collection came from the CalFed, Sport Fish Restoration Act and Bureau of Reclamation. The use of spring-run Chinook Salmon otoliths followed the protocol approved by the University of California Santa Cruz’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee. We also thank N. Mantua from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, Santa Cruz for valuable comments and suggestions. Funding for otoliths analysis was provided to P.K.W. and C.C.P. by CalFed, project no. SCI-05-C179, and to F.C. by CA Sea Grant, award no. 82550-447552, with Metropolitan Water District providing matching funds through salary contribution to C.C.P. Additional labour funding for the data analysis was contributed to F.C. by the US Bureau of Reclamation Central Valley spring-run life cycle modelling project, agreement no. R12PG20200, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Investigations in Fisheries Ecology, award no. NA150AR4320071. CDFW (Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 (CWC §79707(g))) supported co-author A.M.S. NOAA fisheries provided matching funds through salary contribution of co-author R.C.J. P.K.W. received additional support from a University of California Berkeley, Department of Geography, Etta Odgen Holway Scholarship. Work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was performed under the auspices of the US Department of Energy under contract no. DE-AC52-07NA27344.

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Authors and Affiliations



F.C., C.C.P., P.K.W., A.M.S. and R.C.J. conceived the study. F.C. led data collection and analyses. F.C., C.C.P., A.M.S., A.M.F., P.K.W., A.M. and R.C.J. contributed to data analyses and manuscript writing. G.E.W., C.C.P. and P.K.W. conducted the otolith microchemistry and microstructure analyses. A.M.F. performed the temperature prediction modelling and A.M. performed the clustering analysis.

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Correspondence to F. Cordoleani.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Central Valley habitat suitability mapping under a climate change scenario for 2040.

Details of this figure are identical to Fig. 5, except displayed for 0.6 °C stream temperature increase.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion, Tables 1–3 and Figs. 1–3.

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Cordoleani, F., Phillis, C.C., Sturrock, A.M. et al. Threatened salmon rely on a rare life history strategy in a warming landscape. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 982–988 (2021).

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