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Identifying mechanisms underlying individual body size increases in a changing, highly‐seasonal environment: the growing trout of West Brook


Benjamin Letcher

Keith Nislow

Matthew O’Donnell

Andrew Whiteley

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Year of Publication:
Secondary Title:
Journal of Animal Ecology


As air temperature increases, it has been suggested that smaller individual body size may be a general response to climate warming. However, for ectotherms inhabiting cold, highly seasonal environments, warming temperatures may increase the scope for growth and result in larger body size. In a long‐term study of individual brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis and brown trout Salmo trutta inhabiting a small stream network, individual lengths increased over the course of 15 years. As size‐selective gains and losses to the population acted to reduce body sizes and mean body size at first tagging in the autumn (<60 mm) were not observed to change substantially over time, the increase in body size was best explained by higher individual growth rates. For brook trout, increasing water temperatures during the spring (when both trout species accomplish most of their total annual growth) was the primary driver of growth rate for juvenile fish and the environmental factor which best explained increases in individual body size over time. For brown trout, by contrast, reduction in and subsequent elimination of juvenile Atlantic salmon Salmo salar midway through the study period explained most of the increases in juvenile growth and body size. In addition to these major trends, a considerable amount of interannual variation in trout growth and body size was explained by other abiotic (stream flow) and biotic (population density) factors with the direction and magnitude of these effects differing by season, age‐class and species. For example, stream flow was the dominant growth rate driver for adult fish with strong positive effects in the summer and autumn, but flow variation could not explain increases in body size as we observed no trend in flow. Overall, our work supports the general contention that for high‐latitude ectotherms, increasing spring temperatures associated with a warming climate can result in increased growth and individual body size (up to a point), but context‐dependent change in other factors can substantially contribute to both interannual variation and longer‐term effects.