A product of its environment: the epaulette shark exhibits physiological tolerance to elevated environmental CO2

paperAccepted on 14. September 2014

A product of its environment: the epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum) exhibits physiological tolerance to elevated environmental CO2

Dennis D. U. Heinrich, Jodie L. Rummer, Andrea J. Morash, Sue-Ann Watson, Colin A. Simpfendorfer, Michelle R. Heupel, Philip L. Munday


Ocean acidification, resulting from increasing anthropogenic CO2 emissions, is predicted to affect the physiological performance of many marine species. Recent studies have shown substantial reductions in aerobic performance in some teleost fish species, but no change or even enhanced performance in others. Notably lacking, however, are studies on the effects of near-future CO2 conditions on larger meso and apex predators, such as elasmobranchs. The epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum) lives on shallow coral reef flats and in lagoons, where it may frequently encounter short-term periods of environmental hypoxia and elevated CO2, especially during nocturnal low tides. Indeed, H. ocellatum is remarkably tolerant to short periods (hours) of hypoxia, and possibly hypercapnia, but nothing is known about its response to prolonged exposure. We exposed H. ocellatum individuals to control (390 µatm) or one of two near-future CO2 treatments (600 or 880 µatm) for a minimum of 60 days and then measured key aspects of their respiratory physiology, namely the resting oxygen consumption rate, which is used to estimate resting metabolic rate, and critical oxygen tension, a proxy for hypoxia sensitivity. Neither of these respiratory attributes was affected by the long-term exposure to elevated CO2. Furthermore, there was no change in citrate synthase activity, a cellular indicator of aerobic energy production. Plasma bicarbonate concentrations were significantly elevated in sharks exposed to 600 and 880 µatm CO2 treatments, indicating that acidosis was probably prevented by regulatory changes in acid–base relevant ions. Epaulette sharks may therefore possess adaptations that confer tolerance to CO2 levels projected to occur in the ocean by the end of this century. It remains uncertain whether other elasmobranchs, especially pelagic species that do not experience such diurnal fluctuations in their environment, will be equally tolerant.

Conserv Physiol (2014) 2 (1): cou047 doi: 10.1093/conphys/cou047



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