Water temperature explains part of the variation in basal plasma cortisol level, within and between‐ fish species

Within the thermal tolerance range of fish, metabolism is known to escalate with warming. Rapid thermic changes also trigger a series of physiological responses, including activation of the stress axis, producing cortisol. Fish have adapted to their environment by producing low level of plasmatic cortisol when unstressed (basal), so that thriving in their natural temperature should not impact their basal cortisol levels. Yet, surprisingly little is known on how temperature affects cortisol within and between fish species. Here, we conducted a phylogenetic meta-analysis to (1) test whether temperature can explain the differences in basal cortisol between species and (2) evaluate the role of temperature on differences in cortisol levels between individuals of a same species. To do so, we retrieved basal plasma cortisol data from 126 studies, investigating 33 marine and freshwater fish species, and correlated it to water temperature. Intra-species variability in basal plasma cortisol levels was further investigated in two species, the European sea bass Dicentrarchus labrax and the Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus. Factors such as life stage, sex and weight were also considered in the analyses. Overall, our phylogenetic analysis revealed a clear positive correlation between basal cortisol level and the temperature at which the fish live. The role of temperature has also been confirmed within D. labrax, while it failed to be significant in O. niloticus. In this paper, influence of habitat, life stage, sex and weight on basal plasma cortisol levels are also discussed. Since some abiotic parameters were not included in the analysis, our study is a call to encourage scientists to systematically report other key factors such as dissolved oxygen or salinity to fully depict the temperature-cortisol relationship in fishes.


baseline cortisol, European Sea bass, meta-analysis, metabolism, Nile tilapia, stress

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Alfonso Sebastien, Houdelet Camille, Bessa Eduardo, Geffroy Benjamin, Sadoul Bastien (2023). Water temperature explains part of the variation in basal plasma cortisol level, within and between‐ fish species. Journal Of Fish Biology. 103 (4). 828-838. https://doi.org/10.1111/jfb.15342, https://archimer.ifremer.fr/doc/00820/93215/

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