Adaptive responses of fishes to climate change: feedback between physiology and behaviour


• We studied long-term effects of climate change on fish physiology and behaviour.

• Fish responses were tested from cellular to organismal levels in mesocosms/aquaria.

• Fish altered their growth and behaviour as an adaptive response to climate change.

• Fish showed trade-offs between cellular defences and behaviour.

• Adaptive responses show species strategies to prevail under future climate change.


The adaptive capacity of individuals, from their cells to their overall performance, allows species to adjust to environmental change. We assess a hierarchy of responses (from cells to organismal growth and behaviour) to understand the flexibility of adaptive responses to future ocean conditions (warming and acidification) in two species of fish with short lifespans by conducting a long-term mesocosm/aquarium experiment. Fishes were exposed to elevated CO2 and temperature in a factorial design for a five-month period. We found a feedback mechanism between cellular defence and behavioural responses. In circumstances where their antioxidant defence mechanism was activated (i.e. warming or acidification), increased feeding rates prevented oxidative damage (i.e. during warming). However, when feeding rates failed to increase to provide additional energy needed for antioxidant defence, oxidative damage could not be prevented (warming + acidification). In contrast, when the activation of antioxidant defence was not required, energy intake from increased feeding was redirected to increased fish growth (acidification, warming + acidification), whilst no gain in growth rate was observed where feeding remained unchanged (acidification or warming). This adaptive strategy seems to rely on the inherent behavioural response of fishes to their environment and such adjustability shows the kind of responses that organisms may express to prevail in future ocean climate. Indeed, assessing the link between responses from cellular to organismal levels, using a diversity of fitness indicators and behaviour, provides a fundamental understanding of how organisms as a whole may adjust to prevail in a future world.

Rodriguez-Domingue A., Connell S. D., Leung J. Y. S. & Nagelkerken I., in press. Adaptive responses of fishes to climate change: feedback between physiology and behaviour. Science of The Total Environment. Article (subscription required).

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