Thermal adaptation and phenotypic plasticity in a warming world: Insights from common garden experiments on Alaskan sockeye salmon

Glob Chang Biol. 2017 Dec;23(12):5203-5217. doi: 10.1111/gcb.13782. Epub 2017 Jul 6.


An important unresolved question is how populations of coldwater-dependent fishes will respond to rapidly warming water temperatures. For example, the culturally and economically important group, Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), experience site-specific thermal regimes during early development that could be disrupted by warming. To test for thermal local adaptation and heritable phenotypic plasticity in Pacific salmon embryos, we measured the developmental rate, survival, and body size at hatching in two populations of sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) that overlap in timing of spawning but incubate in contrasting natural thermal regimes. Using a split half-sibling design, we exposed embryos of 10 families from each of two populations to variable and constant thermal regimes. These represented both experienced temperatures by each population, and predicted temperatures under plausible future conditions based on a warming scenario from the downscaled global climate model (MIROC A1B scenario). We did not find evidence of thermal local adaptation during the embryonic stage for developmental rate or survival. Within treatments, populations hatched within 1 day of each other, on average, and among treatments, did not differ in survival in response to temperature. We did detect plasticity to temperature; embryos developed 2.5 times longer (189 days) in the coolest regime compared to the warmest regime (74 days). We also detected variation in developmental rates among families within and among temperature regimes, indicating heritable plasticity. Families exhibited a strong positive relationship between thermal variability and phenotypic variability in developmental rate but body length and mass at hatching were largely insensitive to temperature. Overall, our results indicated a lack of thermal local adaptation, but a presence of plasticity in populations experiencing contrasting conditions, as well as family-specific heritable plasticity that could facilitate adaptive change.

Keywords: Bristol Bay; Oncorhynchus nerka; climate change; developmental phenology; gene × environment; hatching; phenotypic plasticity; reaction norm.

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Animals
  • Body Size
  • Climate Change*
  • Salmon / physiology*
  • Temperature*
  • Water


  • Water