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Life on the edge: thermal optima for aerobic scope of equatorial reef fishes are close to current day temperatures

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Abstract

Equatorial populations of marine species are predicted to be most impacted by global warming because they could be adapted to a narrow range of temperatures in their local environment. We investigated the thermal range at which aerobic metabolic performance is optimum in equatorial populations of coral reef fish in northern Papua New Guinea. Four species of damselfishes and two species of cardinal fishes were held for 14 days at 29, 31, 33, and 34 °C, which incorporated their existing thermal range (29–31 °C) as well as projected increases in ocean surface temperatures of up to 3 °C by the end of this century. Resting and maximum oxygen consumption rates were measured for each species at each temperature and used to calculate the thermal reaction norm of aerobic scope. Our results indicate that one of the six species, Chromis atripectoralis, is already living above its thermal optimum of 29 °C. The other five species appeared to be living close to their thermal optima (ca. 31 °C). Aerobic scope was significantly reduced in all species, and approached zero for two species at 3 °C above current-day temperatures. One species was unable to survive even short-term exposure to 34 °C. Our results indicate that low-latitude reef fish populations are living close to their thermal optima and may be more sensitive to ocean warming than higher-latitude populations. Even relatively small temperature increases (2–3 °C) could result in population declines and potentially redistribution of equatorial species to higher latitudes if adaptation cannot keep pace.

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