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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Washington: Carbon Emissions Could Cause Salmon to Lose Ability to Smell Danger

Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean may affect the ways in which coho salmon process and respond to smells, according to a new study from the University of Washington School of Public Health and NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

“Salmon famously use their nose for so many important aspects of their life, from navigation and finding food to detecting predators and reproducing. So it was important for us to know if salmon would be impacted by future carbon dioxide conditions in the marine environment,” said lead author Dr. Chase Williams, a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Evan Gallagher’s lab at the school’s department of environmental and occupational health sciences.

The study, appearing online Dec. 18 in the journal Global Change Biology, is the first to show that ocean acidification affects coho salmons’ sense of smell. The study also takes a more comprehensive approach than earlier work with marine fish by looking at where in the sensory-neural system the ability to smell erodes for fish, and how that loss of smell changes their behavior.

“Our studies and research from other groups have shown that exposure to pollutants can also interfere with sense of smell for salmon,” said Dr. Gallagher, senior co-author and a UW professor of toxicology. “Now, salmon are potentially facing a one-two punch from exposure to pollutants and the added burden of rising CO2. These have implications for the long-term survival of our salmon.”

The research team wanted to test how juvenile coho salmon that normally depend on their sense of smell to alert them to predators and other dangers display a fear response with increasing carbon dioxide. Puget Sound’s waters are expected to absorb more CO2 as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, contributing to ocean acidification.

The research team set up tanks of saltwater with different pH levels. After two weeks, the team ran a series of behavioral and neural tests to see whether the fishes’ sense of smell was affected. Fish were placed in a holding tank and exposed to the smell of salmon skin extract, which indicates a predator attack and usually prompts the fish to hide or swim away. Fish that were in water with current CO2 levels responded normally to the offending odor, but the fish from tanks with higher CO2 levels didn’t seem to mind or detect the smell.

After the behavioral tests, neural activity in each fish’s nose and brain — specifically, in the olfactory bulb where information about smells is processed — was measured to see where the sense of smell was altered. Neuron signaling in the nose was normal under all CO2 conditions, meaning the fish likely could still smell the odors. But when they analyzed neuron behavior in the olfactory bulb, they saw that processing was altered — suggesting the fish couldn’t translate the smell into an appropriate behavioral response.

Finally, the researchers analyzed tissue from the noses and olfactory bulbs of fish to see if gene expression also changed. Gene expression pathways were found to be altered for fish that were exposed to higher levels of CO2, particularly in their olfactory bulbs.

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