Adaptation to climate change: contrasting patterns of thermal-reaction-norm evolution in Pacific versus Atlantic silversides

Hannes Baumann, David O. Conover


How organisms may adapt to rising global temperatures is uncertain, but concepts can emerge from studying adaptive physiological trait variations across existing spatial climate gradients. Many ectotherms, particularly fish, have evolved increasing genetic growth capacities with latitude (i.e. countergradient variation (CnGV) in growth), which are thought to be an adaptation primarily to strong gradients in seasonality. In contrast, evolutionary responses to gradients in mean temperature are often assumed to involve an alternative mode, ‘thermal adaptation’. We measured thermal growth reaction norms in Pacific silverside populations (Atherinops affinis) occurring across a weak latitudinal temperature gradient with invariant seasonality along the North American Pacific coast. Instead of thermal adaptation, we found novel evidence for CnGV in growth, suggesting that CnGV is a ubiquitous mode of reaction-norm evolution in ectotherms even in response to weak spatial and, by inference, temporal climate gradients. A novel, large-scale comparison between ecologically equivalent Pacific versus Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia) revealed how closely growth CnGV patterns reflect their respective climate gradients. While steep growth reaction norms and increasing growth plasticity with latitude in M. menidia mimicked the strong, highly seasonal Atlantic coastal gradient, shallow reaction norms and much smaller, latitude-independent growth plasticity in A. affinis resembled the weak Pacific latitudinal temperature gradient.

  • Received November 12, 2010.
  • Accepted December 7, 2010.
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