1. Variations in the strength of ecological interactions between seasons have received little attention, despite an increased focus on climate alterations on ecosystems. Particularly, the winter situation is often neglected when studying competitive interactions. In northern temperate freshwaters, winter implies low temperatures and reduced food availability, but also strong reduction in ambient light because of ice and snow cover. Here, we study how brown trout [Salmo trutta (L.)] respond to variations in ice-cover duration and competition with Arctic charr [Salvelinus alpinus (L.)], by linking laboratory-derived physiological performance and field data on variation in abundance among and within natural brown trout populations.
2. Both Arctic charr and brown trout reduced resting metabolic rate under simulated ice-cover (darkness) in the laboratory, compared to no ice (6-h daylight). However, in contrast to brown trout, Arctic charr was able to obtain positive growth rate in darkness and had higher food intake in tank experiments than brown trout. Arctic charr also performed better (lower energy loss) under simulated ice-cover in a semi-natural environment with natural food supply.
3. When comparing brown trout biomass across 190 Norwegian lakes along a climate gradient, longer ice-covered duration decreased the biomass only in lakes where brown trout lived together with Arctic charr. We were not able to detect any effect of ice-cover on brown trout biomass in lakes where brown trout was the only fish species.
4. Similarly, a 25-year time series from a lake with both brown trout and Arctic charr showed that brown trout population growth rate depended on the interaction between ice breakup date and Arctic charr abundance. High charr abundance was correlated with low trout population growth rate only in combination with long winters.
5. In conclusion, the two species differed in performance under ice, and the observed outcome of competition in natural populations was strongly dependent on duration of the ice-covered period. Our study shows that changes in ice phenology may alter species interactions in Northern aquatic systems. Increased knowledge of how adaptations to winter conditions differ among coexisting species is therefore vital for our understanding of ecological impacts of climate change.