Aquatic Sciences

, Volume 74, Issue 4, pp 637–657 | Cite as

The role of winter phenology in shaping the ecology of freshwater fish and their sensitivities to climate change

  • B. J. Shuter
  • A. G. Finstad
  • I. P. Helland
  • I. Zweimüller
  • F. HölkerEmail author


Thermal preference and performance provide the physiological frame within which fish species seek strategies to cope with the challenges raised by the low temperatures and low levels of oxygen and food that characterize winter. There are two common coping strategies: active utilization of winter conditions or simple toleration of winter conditions. The former is typical of winter specialist species with low preferred temperatures, and the latter is typical of species with higher preferred temperatures. Reproductive strategies are embodied in the phenology of spawning: the approach of winter conditions cues reproductive activity in many coldwater fish species, while the departure of winter conditions cues reproduction in many cool and warmwater fish species. This cuing system promotes temporal partitioning of the food resources available to young-of-year fish and thus supports high diversity in freshwater fish communities. If the zoogeographic distribution of a species covers a broad range of winter conditions, local populations may exhibit differences in their winter survival strategies that reflect adaptation to local conditions. Extreme winter specialists are found in shallow eutrophic lakes where long periods of ice cover cause winter oxygen levels to drop to levels that are lethal to many fish. The fish communities of these lakes are simple and composed of species that exhibit specialized adaptations for extended tolerance of very low temperatures and oxygen levels. Zoogeographic boundaries for some species may be positioned at points on the landscape where the severity of winter overwhelms the species’ repertoire of winter survival strategies. Freshwater fish communities are vulnerable to many of the shifts in environmental conditions expected with climate change. Temperate and northern communities are particularly vulnerable since the repertoires of physiological and behavioural strategies that characterize many of their members have been shaped by the adverse environmental conditions (e.g. cool short summers, long cold winters) that climate change is expected to mitigate. The responses of these strategies to the rapid relaxation of the adversities that shaped them will play a significant role in the overall responses of these fish populations and their communities to climate change.


Thermal performance Bioenergetics Survival strategies Zoogeographic boundaries Climate change Winter kill 



We would like to thank Christof Engelhardt, Georgiy Kirllin and Heike Zimmermann-Timm for organizing the Winter Limnology Meeting in Liebenburg and the participants for the stimulating atmosphere. We thank P. Abrams, S. Cooke, J. Magnuson, C. K. Minns and H. A. Regier for their insightful reviews of earlier drafts of the manuscript. Support for this work was provided by the Climate Change Program of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the University of Toronto.


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Copyright information

© Springer Basel AG 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • B. J. Shuter
    • 1
    • 2
  • A. G. Finstad
    • 3
  • I. P. Helland
    • 3
  • I. Zweimüller
    • 4
  • F. Hölker
    • 5
    Email author
  1. 1.Harkness Laboratory of Fisheries ResearchOntario Ministry of Natural ResourcesPeterboroughCanada
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Norwegian Institute for Nature ResearchTrondheimNorway
  4. 4.Department of Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Life SciencesUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria
  5. 5.Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland FisheriesBerlinGermany

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