The dinosaur in the coal mine
They look like swimming dinosaurs and they could be an early indicator of how freshwater fish will fare against climate change.
Lake sturgeon are a prehistoric species found in Manitoba’s lakes and sturgeon happen to be some of the most endangered vertebrates on Earth. They are also one of the most adaptive, making them an ideal study of how fish could be affected by rising temperatures.
Will Bugg received a 2023 University of Manitoba Distinguished Dissertation award for his research as a graduate student which investigated the effects of changing temperatures on the physiology of developing lake sturgeon.
“They live so long. Some of these fish are 100 years old and in that lifespan the environment’s changing, so they have to change as well, and they can do it really, really rapidly,” explains Bugg. “They’re able to be physiologically plastic which means they can change how they respond to their environment. More so than we’ve seen in basically any other species.”
If environments get stressful, these impacts can limit the chances that sturgeon ultimately survive both in hatcheries and in wild environments. These environmental changes, like increases in water temperature, can interact with other stressors like pathogens, and have different impacts on the various populations of lake sturgeon throughout the province of Manitoba.
For his research, Bugg reared fish from populations in both northern and southern Manitoba. Using cutting edge molecular techniques, he took samples from their gills and analyzed the genes to see which ones are activated by different environmental stressors.
The results showed that the sturgeon’s adaptability declined as temperatures increased, suggesting that they could become more vulnerable to the effects of warming or other climate change related impacts. This was even more prominent in the fish from northern Manitoba, where temperatures have been rising faster than in the rest of the province.
“We are now in a period where the environmental changes that are occurring are at such an elevated rate that even these most plastic and adaptable fishes are some of the most endangered worldwide,” says Bugg. “By investigating how changes in the environment impact the physiology and survival of lake sturgeon, we can better protect them. If we don’t try to preserve them now, we’re going to lose them.”
Bugg is continuing to study the impacts of environmental change on threatened or endangered fish and is currently in B.C. working with the University of British Columbia and the Pacific Salmon Foundation.
University of Manitoba Distinguished Dissertation Awards are given to graduating doctoral students who have been nominated by their faculty/college/school for a dissertation that represents a ground-breaking piece of original work. Each year, one award is offered in each of the following categories: applied sciences, health sciences, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences. Awardees receive a $3,000 prize.
Curious about graduate studies? Check out all of UM’s graduate programs.