Skip to main content

Migration to freshwater increases growth rates in a facultatively catadromous tropical fish


Diadromy is a form of migration where aquatic organisms undergo regular movements between fresh and marine waters for the purposes of feeding and reproduction. Despite having arisen in independent lineages of fish, gastropod molluscs and crustaceans, the evolutionary drivers of diadromous migration remain contentious. We test a key aspect of the ‘productivity hypothesis’, which proposes that diadromy arises in response to primary productivity differentials between marine and freshwater habitats. Otolith chemistry and biochronology data are analysed in a facultatively catadromous tropical fish (barramundi, Lates calcarifer) to determine the effect of freshwater residence on growth rates. Individuals that accessed freshwater grew ~ 25% faster on average than estuarine residents in the year following migration, suggesting that catadromy provides a potential fitness advantage over non-catadromous (marine/estuarine) life histories, as predicted by the productivity hypothesis. Although diadromous barramundi exhibited faster growth than non-diadromous fish, we suggest that the relative reproductive success of diadromous and non-diadromous contingents is likely to be strongly influenced by local environmental variability such as temporal differences in river discharge, and that this may facilitate the persistence of diverse life history strategies within populations.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3


Download references


We are grateful to Northern Territory Fisheries and anonymous recreational and commercial fishermen for providing the otoliths used in this study. Jonathan Taylor assisted with otolith preparation. The research is supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program, Charles Darwin University and an Australian Government Research Training Program Stipend Scholarship.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



BR and DC designed the research. BR performed biochronological analyses, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. TS provided otoliths used in this study. JW and BR conducted microchemical analyses. JM provided statistical expertise. DC, JM, DM, AK and TS discussed and interpreted the results and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brien H. Roberts.

Additional information

Communicated by Brian Shuter.

Our study provides the first evidence that catadromy confers a growth advantage. We provide new insights into the evolutionary and ecological factors that may shape the expression of diadromy in fish.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 38 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Roberts, B.H., Morrongiello, J.R., King, A.J. et al. Migration to freshwater increases growth rates in a facultatively catadromous tropical fish. Oecologia 191, 253–260 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Diadromy
  • Partial migration
  • Life history
  • Biochronology
  • Otolith chemistry