Keeping track of time under ice and snow in a sub-arctic lake: plasma melatonin rhythms in Arctic charr overwintering under natural conditions

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Although photoperiod is considered as a major environmental cue for timing of seasonal events in fish, little is known about the photic information perceived by fish in different aquatic environments. The strongly seasonal Arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus, reside in lakes covered by thick ice and snow throughout the dark winter in the north. In the present study, we have measured diel changes in their plasma melatonin concentrations from September to June in Lake Storvatnet (70°N), northern Norway. In addition, we have measured the in vitro melatonin production of Arctic charr pineal glands held at experimental light conditions. From September to April a diel profile in plasma melatonin was seen in the charr in Lake Storvatn, with highest concentrations at night. This profile reflected the prevailing above-surface photoperiod, even in February when there were minimal changes in sub-surface irradiance between day and night. In June, plasma melatonin was low throughout the 24-hr cycle, despite there being a marked sub-surface difference in irradiance between night and day. At this time the irradiance in night probably remained above the threshold for suppression of melatonin production. The in vitro experiments revealed no endogenous rhythm in the pineal melatonin secretion, supporting the conclusion that the diel profile seen in the Arctic charr in their natural habitat was driven by ambient photoperiod. In conclusion, the Arctic charr appear to keep track of time even under the extreme conditions of high latitudes during winter, when lakes have thick ice and snow cover.

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