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Selection on offspring size and contemporary evolution under ocean acidification


Ocean acidification may have deleterious effects on many species, but anticipating long-term changes in the abundance of populations will require an understanding of ocean acidification as an evolutionary force. Here, I show that ocean acidification alters natural selection on offspring size and is likely to drive contemporary evolution. In a detailed study of a coastal fish species (California grunion), I demonstrate that larval mortality is highly sensitive to ocean acidification and that mortality rates are lower for larger larvae. However, these effects are countered by tradeoffs between offspring size and number, suggesting that measurements of maternal fitness are critical for quantifying selection through ocean acidification. Measurements of selection and genetic variation were used to project the evolution of larval size as seawater conditions changed incrementally over many decades. Results for California grunion suggest that contemporary evolution may offset the projected decline in reproductive success by about 50%.

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Fig. 1: Selection on larval size under ambient and ocean acidification treatments.
Fig. 2: Projected change in reproductive success of California grunion (offspring number × survival, standardized to 2020 conditions) as pCO2 and temperature levels increase incrementally over time.

Data availability

Data from this study are available through the Dryad digital repository (

Code availability

R scripts used to analyze variation and natural selection on larval size and to project evolutionary responses of larvae to ocean acidification are available at Zenodo and accessible from the Dryad link55.


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Special thanks to A. Tasoff, E. Siegfried, J. Chhor, C. Shelley, J. Paz, B. McCann, T. Morales, S. Parrott and C. Powell for their assistance with data collection. I also thank Y. Ralph and the staff of the CSULB Marine Lab for logistical support. This study was funded by NSF award OCE-1948975 to D.W.J.

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Correspondence to Darren W. Johnson.

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Nature Climate Change thanks Miguel Baltazar-Soares, Andrea Frommel and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Change in larval size throughout reproductive season.

Variation in larval size by month and year. Solid horizontal lines indicate the medians. Boxes represent the interquartile range and vertical lines extend to the largest and smallest values within 1.5 times the interquartile range.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Projected evolution of larval size and relative fitness using the Breeder’s equation.

Projected evolution of larval size and effects on relative reproductive success using a two-sex version of the Breeder’s equation. Solid line describes the projected reproductive success in the absence of evolution and the dot-and-dashed line represents reproductive success when larval size is allowed to evolve according to the patterns of selection and heritability described in this study. Thin dashed lines and shaded area represent the 95% Confidence Intervals for the projections with and without evolutionary responses.

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Supplementary Text 1 and 2, Supplementary Tables 1–3 and Supplementary Figs. 1–4.

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Johnson, D.W. Selection on offspring size and contemporary evolution under ocean acidification. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 757–760 (2022).

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