Karl Filipsson, Eva Bergman, Larry Greenberg, Martin Österling, Johan Watz and Ann Erlandsson recently published the paper “Temperature and predator-mediated regulation of plasma cortisol and brain gene expression in juvenile brown trout (Salmo trutta)” in the journal Frontiers in Zoology.

In this study, we tested how temperature and the presence of a cold-water adapted predatory fish (burbot, Lota lota) affected primary stress responses (i.e. cortisol and mRNA levels of stress-related genes) in juvenile brown trout (Salmo trutta). We found that trout had elevated cortisol levels in the presence of burbot, and that stress-related gene expressions varied a lot with temperature. In addition, we found that the predator-induced effects on mRNA levels were temperature dependent for some of the genes. This, together with the directly temperature-mediated effects that we observed in our study, suggest that warming winters can have major impact on primary stress responses in overwintering salmonids, for instance in encounters with predators.

In the abstract of the paper, we wrote that:

“Temperature affects many aspects of performance in poikilotherms, including how prey respond when encountering predators. Studies of anti-predator responses in fish mainly have focused on behaviour, whereas physiological responses regulated through the hypothalamic-pituitary-interrenal axis have received little attention. We examined plasma cortisol and mRNA levels of stress-related genes in juvenile brown trout (Salmo trutta) at 3 and 8 °C in the presence and absence of a piscivorous fish (burbot, Lota lota).

One of the experimental aquaria used for the study.

A redundancy analysis revealed that both water temperature and the presence of the predator explained a significant amount of the observed variation in cortisol and mRNA levels (11.4 and 2.8%, respectively). Trout had higher cortisol levels in the presence than in the absence of the predator. Analyses of individual gene expressions revealed that trout had significantly higher mRNA levels for 11 of the 16 examined genes at 3 than at 8 °C, and for one gene (retinol-binding protein 1), mRNA levels were higher in the presence than in the absence of the predator. Moreover, we found interaction effects between temperature and predator presence for two genes that code for serotonin and glucocorticoid receptors.

We extracted mRNA from the forebrain (telencephalon) of the trout. The picture shows a trout brain after dissection, where the telencephalon is the two upper lobes.

Our results suggest that piscivorous fish elicit primary stress responses in juvenile salmonids and that some of these responses may be temperature dependent. In addition, this study emphasizes the strong temperature dependence of primary stress responses in poikilotherms, with possible implications for a warming climate.”

You can read the paper for free on the journal website, as the paper is published open access through funding provided by Karlstad University.

Salmonid (Atlantic salmon) eggs (photoscienceimage)

Larry Greenberg is currently working on a research project on potential effects of increased winter temperature on brown trout growth and behavior. The research is funded by Karlstad University’s Lecturers and Professors Research Award. Larry describes the project:

“The predicted climate change over the next 65 years will have a major impact on the Earth’s plants and animals. Climate scenarios for Sweden predict that mean annual temperature will increase by 3-5 ° C, with a greater increase in winter than in summer. Because incubation of eggs laid by brown trout and related fishes occurs during winter, the predicted increased winter temperatures may have a major impact on egg development, with far-reaching consequences for fish after they have hatched. The fact that environmental conditions during the egg stage can affect later life stages (juveniles and adults) may seem unlikely, but recent studies have already shown that temperature conditions during egg development can affect growth of juveniles and even reproductive output of adults. As embryonic temperature conditions have been shown to affect growth, one would also expect such conditions to even affect behavior, as behavior and growth are often linked.

For this project, I plan to investigate how an increase in winter temperature conditions during egg development affects the behavior and growth of juvenile brown trout. I will raise fertilized brown trout eggs over the winter at ambient temperature and at 5° C warmer water, and test for subsequent effects on the feeding behavior and personality of juveniles as well as on their growth and metabolic rates.  The research is novel by being the first to investigate whether or not thermal conditions during egg development can affect both the behavior and growth of juveniles.”

The eggs are presently developing under different temperature regimes at Gammelkroppa fish hatchery.