Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 64, Issue 1, pp 165–174

Adaptations to Stochastic Environmental Variations: The Effects of Seasonal Temperatures on the Migratory Window of Svalbard Arctic Charr


  • Martin-A. Svenning
    • Department for Arctic Ecology, Norwegian Institute for Nature ResearchPolar Environmental Center
  • Nils Gullestad
    • Department for Arctic Ecology, Norwegian Institute for Nature ResearchPolar Environmental Center

DOI: 10.1023/A:1016002102945

Cite this article as:
Svenning, M. & Gullestad, N. Environmental Biology of Fishes (2002) 64: 165. doi:10.1023/A:1016002102945


The circumpolar Arctic charr, Salvelinus alpinus, is ideal for studying how environmental factors affect life history in fishes. Charr populations demonstrate a tremendous ecological plasticity and adaptations to harsh environments. Arctic charr is the only freshwater fish on Svalbard, including anadromous, resident, and landlocked stocks. Freshwater lake systems on Svalbard are characterized by very low water temperatures, long-term or even permanent ice cover, and low levels of nutrients. Food is thus limited and may lead to growth stagnation and early maturity in Arctic charr. The individual growth pattern may alternatively follow a sigmoid-shaped curve, caused by a shift to either cannibalistic or anadromous (migration to sea) behaviour. In lake systems that include migratory charr, the population may consist of a mixture of parr, postsmolt, and adult migratory individuals, as well as small-sized resident, large-sized resident (cannibals), and large formerly resident individuals transformed to anadromy. Our study in the Lake Dieset watercourse (79°N), Svalbard, demonstrates that the annual water flow in the outlet river is strongly correlated to air temperatures and provides a passage to the sea, allowing the charr access to the nutrient-rich seawater environment, during at most two months each year. During one of the years studied, the youngest and small-sized part of the sea-going stock was prevented from ascending the river and probably suffered mortality during winter. The migratory window of the Arctic charr in Lake Dieset is therefore highly variable among years and thus unpredictable. We hypothesize that in worst case scenarios (cold years, low water discharge), climatic variations may occasionally prevent charr from migrating upstream in Svalbard lake systems in late autumn, resulting in high mortality in the population.

climatic variationslife historySalvelinus alpinussalmonid fish
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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002