Marine Biology

, 163:91 | Cite as

When warming hits harder: survival, cellular stress and thermal limits of Sparus aurata larvae under global change

  • Diana Madeira
  • Pedro M. Costa
  • Catarina Vinagre
  • Mário S. Diniz
Original Paper


Understanding physiological and molecular compensation mechanisms that shape thermotolerance is crucial for estimating the effects of ocean warming on fish stocks, especially during early life stages, whose tolerance determines recruitment success and population viability. The aims of this study were to assess the sensitivity of fish larvae toward ocean warming and heat wave events in the commercial species, Sparus aurata, whose habitat is likely to be affected by rising water temperatures. We (1) estimated its critical thermal maximum (CTmax) and relative mortality upon warming, (2) quantified stress biomarkers: heat shock protein 70 kDa, total ubiquitin, antioxidant enzymes (superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione-S-transferase), lipid peroxidation and protein carbonylation, and (3) analyzed histopathological changes as a result of thermal stress. Larvae showed increasing levels of lethargy with increasing temperature, attaining a cumulative CTmax value of 30 °C. Relative mortality increased upon warming, reaching 80 % at 30 °C. Oxidative damage was higher at moderate temperatures and decreased at 24 °C probably due to a significant increase in superoxide dismutase’s (SODs) activity. Hsp70 chaperone levels also increased at 26 °C, but unfolding persisted at higher temperatures as shown by the increase in total ubiquitin at 26 and 28 °C, indicating protein damage. Skeletal muscle showed disorganization of muscle fibers from 24 °C onwards. Overall, protein denaturation seems to be the major cause of larval mortality, potentially compromising recruitment’s success from 22 °C onwards, since larvae migrate into nursery grounds by spring and summer (i.e., high temperatures), thus hindering the viability of local fish stocks. These data demonstrate that the biochemical homeostasis of fish can be disturbed within an ecologically realistic thermal range and emphasize the risks of rising global temperatures for larval fishes.

Graphical Abstract


Heat Wave Protein Carbonylation Coastal Lagoon Fish Stock Relative Mortality 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors would like to thank Marta Martins, Ana Patrícia and Carolina Madeira for the help given in the maintenance of experimental systems and feeding of the organisms. Authors would like to thank MARESA for providing not only S. aurata larvae but also microalgae, rotifers and Artemia salina nauplii.


This study had the support of the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT) (individual grants: senior researcher position to CV, SFRH/BPD/72564/2010 to PMC, SFRH/BD/80613/2011 to DM; Project Grants PTDC/MAR/119068/2010 and PTDC/MAR-EST/2141/2012; strategic Project Grants UID/Multi/04378/2013 and UID/MAR/04292/2013).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

We have no competing interests.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.UCIBIO-REQUIMTE, Faculdade de Ciências e TecnologiaUniversidade Nova de LisboaCaparicaPortugal
  2. 2.Unit of Molecular Toxicology, Institute of Environmental Medicine (IMM)Karolinska InstitutetStockholmSweden
  3. 3.Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre (MARE), Faculdade de CiênciasUniversidade de LisboaLisbonPortugal

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