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Scientists Find Atlantic Salmon Can Adapt to Warmer Waters

18 July 2014

CANADA - A group of scientists at the University of Oslo and University of British Columbia have discovered that Atlantic salmon have the capacity to adjust to warmer temperatures that are being seen with climate change.

The finding about Atlantic species adds to recent UBC-supported research on heat tolerance of Pacific salmon.

The new study, a collaboration between Norwegian and Canadian researchers, was recently published in Nature Communications. Funded by the Norwegian Research Council, it addressed questions around how climate change might affect salmon species distribution and abundance.

UBC authors of the study include Katja Anttila, a postdoctoral fellow who now works at the University of Turku in Finland, and Tony Farrell, Chair in Sustainable Aquaculture.

Scientists studied wild salmon from two European rivers. They compared a cold-water population from Norway’s northern Alta River, where water temperatures have not exceeded 18°C for 30 years, with warm-water populations from France’s Dordogne River, located 3,000 kilometres south, where annual water temperatures regularly exceed 20°C.

Eggs from both populations were hatched at the University of Oslo, where they were raised at 12 or 20°C. Despite substantially different natural environments, both populations had remarkably similar capabilities when warmed.

When reared at 12°C temperatures, salmon from both populations developed cardiac arrhythmias at 21 to 23°C, after a maximum heart rate of 150 beats per minute. But those raised at 20°C developed cardiac arrhythmias at a surprising 27.5°C, after the heart reached 200 beats per minute. Researchers found that increasing the fish’s acclimation temperature by 8°C raised temperature tolerance by 6°C.

“The results are surprising,” Farrell said. “A fish faced with uncomfortably warm temperatures might relocate or even die if it is too extreme. Here we have evidence for warm acclimation of a commercially and culturally important fish species.”

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