Chilean silverside

UConn Today reports on Hannes’ Chile research

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October 12, 2023 | Elaina Hancock - UConn Communications

Snap Shot: How Will Organisms Adapt to Climate Change?

A UConn Marine Sciences researcher is spending time in Chile studying an important forage fish, and how this vital part of the food chain will adapt to a changing climate

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The rocky and picturesque shores of the Pacific near Dichato

The world’s oceans have experienced record heat in 2023. With rising temperatures and increasing acidification, we don’t yet know the full extent these changes will have on marine ecosystems.

UConn Department of Marine Sciences Associate Professor Hannes Baumann studies fish, including important forage fishes such as sand lance and silverside, to see how they adapt to changes in environmental conditions. Many species are already adapted to temperature gradients that exist across latitudes on Earth, and Baumann believes that from these patterns, we can learn how fish may adapt to climate change – in time. This so-called “Space-for-Time” approach is one tool scientists use to predict the long-term consequences of climate change.

As part of his post-doctoral work, Baumann experimentally found similar climate adaptation patterns in Atlantic and Pacific silversides. He suspects that a higher-order relationship exists between the strength of adaptation and the strength of the underlying climate gradient.

Now, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, Baumann has the opportunity to return to and expand his study of silversides to a South Pacific species and study how they are adapted to their coastal latitudinal temperature gradient.

“We are hoping the prove the validity of a principle of evolutionary adaptation for the Southern Hemisphere. It will then allow us to compare and integrate the patterns with the silverside species from the Northern Hemisphere, which evolutionary ecologists have been studying for decades already,” says Baumann.

After a two-week proof-of-concept trip to Chile in the Fall of 2022, Baumann established connections with local fishermen and colleagues at the Universidad de Concepcion in Dichato, Chile.

“To get spawning fish, we visit fish markets – called here caletas de pescadores – and first establish a connection to those who make a living catching silversides (“pejerrey del mar”). We’re making friends to explain our unusual request to accompany a fisherman during the night. This is the best method to make sure that the eggs get fully fertilized," he says.

In the Summer of 2023, Baumann began his yearlong sabbatical and has now moved to Chile for five months to begin the main experimental work on Chilean silversides, their adaptations, and the strength of those adaptations to underlying climate change.

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Hannes in Tongoy near Coquimbo/Chile

Hannes starts sabbatical research in Chile

17 Juli 2023. Hannes just moved for 5 months to a small village called Dichato near Concepción in south-central Chile to build and then conduct a large common garden experiment on the Chilean silverside Odontesthes regia.

It's still early, disorienting days - but thanks to the ever optimistic Mauricio Urbina, the collaborator on this project, the mood is good and full of anticipation.

Want to learn more? The Chilean silverside page has it.

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Sun over Dichato at Coliumo Bay on 22 July 2023

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Fishing boat in Dichato. In the background is the Marine Station.

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A dead purple sea urchin

Fishing for silversides … in Chile!

A two-week stint to south-central Chile ends with a successful proof-of-concept that planned research on a Chilean silverside species will be highly feasible, opening avenues for a budding US-Chilean collaboration.

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Fishing boats in Caleta Tumbes near Concepcion, Chile

Concepcion (Chile), 12 October 2022. Two incredible weeks of adventure and scientific exploration for new and potentially groundbreaking science are coming to a close. In preparation for next year’s sabbatical, Hannes has met and made friends with colleagues at the Universidad the Concepción in southern Chile, travelled some 2,000 miles along the stunning Chilean coast, scoured local fish markets and accompanied artisanal fishermen on their nightly pursuits. The goal: finding a small fish that looks all too familiar – a silverside!

The Chilean silverside (Odontesthes regia), locally known as ‘pejerrey’, looks eerily similar to the Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia), the model that has already inspired decades of eco-evolutionary research across many labs including ours. And like its northern hemisphere cousin, Chilean silversides occur over an astounding geographical range along the South American Pacific coast, all the way from Puerto Montt (42°S) to southern Peru (10°S)! There, average coastal temperatures change predictably with latitude and therefore provide a natural climate gradient in space that could serve as an analogue to climate change in time. Whether and how Chilean silversides show similar local adaptations to their latitudinal gradient is a big question – and next year’s sabbatical will start to provide some important answers.

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Pejerrey are usually caught with gillnets as here in the picture

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A Chilean silverside embryo of a few days post fertilization. Eyes beginning to pigment and a prominent yolk artery provides nutrients for growth

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A Chilean silverside embryo close to hatch

To prepare, Hannes spent two weeks in September and October 2022 in Chile. Hosted by the ever-enthusiastic Prof. Mauricio Urbina from the zoology department and thanks to a visiting grant from the university, we were ready to start exploring. Our specific goal for this trip was to find spawning-ripe pejerrey in two of the planned four locations along the coast.

The luck was on our side and the timing of the visit turned out to be perfect. On a nightly fishing trip with the artisanal fisherman Juan Figueroa from the small village of Tumbes near Concepción, we caught running ripe males and females, observed naturally deposited egg masses in nearshore waters, and were able to subsequently document the temperature-dependent development of newly fertilized embryos.

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Left: During spawning season, pejerrey deposit enormous masses of eggs on vegetation in shallow water. Right: The Marine Station of the Universidad de Concepcion in Dichato

On an epic road-trip up the coast all the way to Coquimbo, Hannes and graduate student Rocio Barrios stopped at many villages and local fish markets, gathering information and finally securing precious samples of spawning-ripe pejerrey from a fisherman at the Coquimbo fish market. Transporting the embryos was a success, too, thereby paving the way for the proposed research plan next year.

The real, big common garden experiments will take place from September – December 2023 at the Dichato Marine Station near Concepción, a small but recently renovated station with excellent facilities for our purposes.

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On the road during our trip to Coquimbo

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Beautiful spring at the scenic Coliumo Bay near Concepcion

While at the University, Hannes also gave a seminar talk to the students and faculty explaining his excitement and plans for coming to Chile, which received great interest, curiosity, and students expressing interest to play a part in this.

    Baumann, H. 2022. Principles of local adaptation across environmental gradients (or: why I’m so darn interested in studying Chilean silversides). Invited seminar talk. University de Concepción, 29 Sep 2022

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A gillnet used to fish for Chilean silversides on the beach of Tumbes near Concepcion

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A newly hatched Chilean silverside measuring already an astounding 9 mm TL