New study to investigate sawfish resilience to climate change

January 14, 2015

Dr Adrian Gleiss (right) weighs a sawfish with James Keleher

A new study funded by the Australian Research Council will clarify the role that climate change plays in the population fluctuations of critically endangered sawfish in the Kimberley and their resilience to rising temperatures.

The information collected by Dr Adrian Gleiss from Murdoch University’s Freshwater Fish Group and Fish Health Unit will also identify which rivers provide the most favourable conditions for this iconic species and facilitate the protection of these habitats from increasing industrial development in north west Australia.

Dr Gleiss’ three year research project, which is part of an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award, will also study the effects of climate change on bull sharks in the Fitzroy River.

“To help protect these species and others from the effects of climate change, it is important to understand how increased temperatures can alter their behaviour and physiology,” said Dr Gleiss.

“Temperature plays a big role in the way these fish function, influencing a range of biological processes including growth and reproduction. Previous work in the Fitzroy River shows that sawfish use the naturally occurring differences in temperature throughout the river to thermoregulate, so any change in behavior may have a significant impact on the biology of the species.

“For the first time, this project will try to answer how behavioural changes allow these animals to cope with changing environmental conditions. Such behavioural change may underlie the resilience to climate change of many other species and systems globally and the methodology we develop will pave the way for assessments of other animal-environmental interactions.”

Innovative technology including tagging, new theory and climate modeling will be utilised by Dr Gleiss and his collaborators in the $335,000 study.

Sawfish and bull sharks were chosen for the study because of their differences and similarities, said Dr Gleiss. Sawfish are largely sedentary, spending 50 per cent of their time motionless on the riverbed whereas bull sharks are continuously swimming. Both species occur in the Fitzroy River in their juvenile stages and leave the river before reaching maturity.

Dr Gleiss, who has previously worked at Stanford University in the United States and Swansea University in the UK, will be collaborating with Dr David Morgan and Dr Steve Beatty from Murdoch’s Freshwater Fish Group and Fish Health Unit on the study.

Dr Gleiss will also be working with Professor Neil Loneragan and Associate Professor Alan Lymbery from Murdoch’s Centre for Fish, Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems. Scientists from the University of Western Australia, the University of Melbourne and the Mote Marine Laboratory in the US are also involved in the study.

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