Effects of climate-change driven gradual and acute temperature changes on shark and ray species

Published on
19. June 2021

Effects of climate-change driven gradual and acute temperature changes on shark and ray species

Geoffrey J. Osgood, Easton R. White, Julia K. Baum


  1. Climate change is altering distributions and abundances of marine species through both gradual and acute changes in temperature and productivity. Due to their high mobility and metabolic rates, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays) are likely to redistribute across latitudes and depths as they thermoregulate, but little is known about their responses to these climatic changes, which could vary widely across this diverse group of species.
  2. Here, we assessed how species with differing mobility and ecology responded to gradual changes in daily sea surface temperature (SST) and acute temperature anomalies, caused by the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), at Cocos Island, Costa Rica, the site of multiple marine heatwaves.
  3. We used generalized linear mixed models to analyze 34,342 records of relative abundance or frequency of occurrence for seven shark and ray species collected in 27 years (1993-2019) by a dive company. We compared effect sizes for SST and the Oceanic Niño Index across the different species, which vary widely in body size and mobility.
  4. Large, mobile species responded strongly but inconsistently to temperature. For scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini), a 1°C rise in SST reduced counts by over 14%, and dropped the occurrence of their large schools by almost one fifth (19.4%). Mobula ray occurrence also declined substantially with a few degrees rise in SST, whereas tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) occurrence sharply increased. These species also had divergent responses to the ENSO: S.lewini and G. cuvier were sighted with greater frequency during La Niña events, and their abundance dropped considerably during El Niño events—over a 2-fold decline between a strong La Niña and strong El Niño for S. lewini. In contrast, Mobula rays showed little response to ENSO. The smaller and sedentary Triaenodon obesus exhibited the weakest response of all species to both SST and the ENSO, reflecting its lower metabolic rates and mobility.
  5. Climate change will continue to impact elasmobranchs, even for smaller and more localized species, with the potential to impact the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs). Our results compel further work on the diversity of elasmobranch responses to environmental change.

Journal of Animal Ecology, DOI:10.1111/1365-2656.13560


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