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Following Food Saves Some Fish From Climate Change

Dec 22, 2014 09:40 AM EST

Even in the wake of climate change some species are doing fine, learning to adapt to changing ecosystems by following their favorite foods. A new field study has revealed a very distinct example of this in southeast Alaska's common char.

The study recently published in the journal Freshwater Biology, details how a species resiliency in the face of climate change may depend on how well they adapt to climate-driven changes in their food and habitat. In the case of Alaska's common char, the Dolly Varden, for instance, it simply is blindly following where its food goes to survive.

That may sound like common sense, but for many species, migration patterns are a lot more dependent on various environmental cues, such as water temperature or stream flow. However these cues are becoming progressively more misleading as climate change alters habitats. That's why the Dolly Varden - being blind these cues - has proven itself a survivor.

According to new observations, the char simply follows its prey, the Alaskan salmon population. About the same size and even smaller than these fish, the Dolly Varden doesn't prey on adult salmon directly. Instead, it stalks schools of the fish during spawning season, looking to steal a meal of fresh salmon eggs.

"Despite warming temperatures and shifting salmon migrations, Dolly Varden do a great job of following their food," lead author Chris Sergeant, of the National Park Service's Inventory and Monitoring Program in southeast Alaska, said in a statement. "Species that can handle a high degree of variability are the ones that should be most resilient to further changes associated with climate."

Of course, it should be noted that this behavior also essentially puts the fate of the species in the "hands" (fins) of their prey. But according to data from NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center Auke Bay Labs, supported by collaborations with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Department of Fish and Game, it really has always been this way, and the Dolly Varden is a particularly proficient hunter.

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