Skip to main content

Nesting on high: reproductive and physiological consequences of breeding across an intertidal gradient


Nest site selection is a critical parental decision with profound fitness consequences, yet the physiological consequences of these decisions are rarely examined. Certain fishes and other aquatic organisms construct nests and provide parental care in the intertidal zone—an environment characterized by fluctuating water levels, which can exert intermittent and sometimes extreme abiotic stress on the animals that live there including dramatic changes in temperature and dissolved oxygen level. In this study, we used the plainfin midshipman fish, Porichthys notatus, to test whether (1) nest site preferences and reproductive success vary across an intertidal elevation gradient, and (2) fish that nest at higher elevations pay greater physiological costs due to prolonged exposure to more extreme abiotic conditions. We found that fish preferred nests lower in the intertidal zone, with larger males outcompeting smaller males for these sites. Broods at high elevations suffered greater offspring mortality than broods at lower elevations. The average microhabitat temperature of nests was also warmer and more variable at higher elevations compared to lower elevations. While isolated from the ocean during low tides, care-giving parents increased their use of anaerobic metabolism, and potentially draw upon oxygen reserves in the swim bladder. Our results suggest that the choice of nesting location can have profound effects on a parent’s physiology and may generate significant variation in reproductive success among individuals.

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

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


Download references


We are indebted to Chuck and Sally Flader as well as Eileen Carr and family for providing lodging and access to the field sites. We also thank J. Miller, N. Houpt, E. Sadler, N. Brown, M. Lapstra, K. Cogliati, and C. Hiltz for assistance with field work. This work was funded by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grants to SB and GRS (Grant Nos. 222854-2011 and 418202-2012). Additional funding was provided to AB by the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour at McMaster University. Analyses reported in this article can be reproduced using the data provided in the Supplementary Materials.

Author contributions

AB, SB, BB, and GRS conceived and designed the study. AB and SB conducted the field work. BB conducted the laboratory assays. AB analyzed the data. AB and BB wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aneesh P. H. Bose.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

No competing interests declared.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Aneesh P. H. Bose and Brittney G. Borowiec: Co-first authors.

Electronic supplementary material

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bose, A.P.H., Borowiec, B.G., Scott, G.R. et al. Nesting on high: reproductive and physiological consequences of breeding across an intertidal gradient. Evol Ecol 33, 21–36 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Abiotic stress
  • Parental care
  • Beach spawning
  • Nest site selection
  • Male competition
  • Toadfish