Adaptation as a potential response to sea-level rise: a genetic basis for salinity tolerance in populations of a coastal marsh fish

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Relative sea-level rise is resulting in the intrusion of saline waters into marshes historically dominated by fresh water. Saltwater intrusions can potentially affect resident marsh species, especially when storm-related tidal surges cause rapid changes in salinity. We examined the role of historical salinity exposure on the survival of Gambusia affinis from two locations in coastal Louisiana. At each location, we sampled fish populations from fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes. Individuals were then exposed to a salinity of 25‰ and survival time was measured. We found that fish from brackish and intermediate marshes had an increased tolerance to salinity stress relative to fish from freshwater environments. We then tested the descendents of fish from the fresh and brackish marshes, reared for two generation in fresh water, to determine if there was a genetic basis for differential survival. We found that descendents of individuals from brackish marshes showed elevated survivals relative to the descendents of fish with no historical exposure to salinity. The most reasonable mechanism to account for the differences in survival relative to historical exposure is genetic adaptation, suggesting that natural selection may play a role in the responses of resident marsh fishes to future increases in salinity.

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