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Long-term patterns in estuarine fish growth across two climatically divergent regions


Long-term ecological datasets are vital for investigating how species respond to changes in their environment, yet there is a critical lack of such datasets from aquatic systems. We developed otolith growth ‘chronologies’ to reconstruct the growth history of a temperate estuarine fish species, black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri). Chronologies represented two regions in south-east Australia: South Australia, characterised by a relatively warm, dry climate, and Tasmania, characterised by a relatively cool, wet climate. Using a mixed modelling approach, we related inter-annual growth variation to air temperature, rainfall, freshwater inflow (South Australia only), and El Niño–Southern Oscillation events. Otolith chronologies provided a continuous record of growth over a 13- and 21-year period for fish from South Australia and Tasmania, respectively. Even though fish from Tasmania were sourced across multiple estuaries, they showed higher levels of growth synchronicity across years, and greater year-to-year growth variation, than fish from South Australia, which were sourced from a single, large estuary. Growth in Tasmanian fish declined markedly over the time period studied and was negatively correlated to temperature. In contrast, growth in South Australian fish was positively correlated to both temperature and rainfall. The stark contrast between the two regions suggests that Tasmanian black bream populations are more responsive to regional scale environmental variation and may be more vulnerable to global warming. This study highlights the importance of examining species response to climate change at the intra-specific level and further validates the emerging use of growth chronologies for generating long-term ecological data in aquatic systems.

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We would like to thank Ryuji Sakabe, David Fleer and David Short for providing otolith samples and associated data, Vidya Kare for assisting with otolith preparation, and John Morrongiello and Gretchen Grammer for their advice on otolith chronology development and mixed modelling. This research was funded by an ARC Discovery grant (DP110100716) and Future Fellowship (FT100100767) awarded to BMG.

Author contribution statement

ZAD, CI and BMG conceived and designed the research; JAH, QY, and JML provided prepared field samples; ZAD collected and analysed the data and wrote the manuscript; all authors discussed results and commented on manuscript drafts.

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Correspondence to Zoë A. Doubleday.

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All applicable institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

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Communicated by Steve Swearer.

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Doubleday, Z.A., Izzo, C., Haddy, J.A. et al. Long-term patterns in estuarine fish growth across two climatically divergent regions. Oecologia 179, 1079–1090 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-015-3411-6

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  • Climate change
  • Growth history
  • Otolith chronology
  • Southeast Australia