They may have been around for hundreds of millions of years—long before trees—but today sharks and rays are are among the most threatened animals in the world, largely because of overfishing and habitat loss.
Climate change adds another overarching stressor to the mix. So how will sharks cope as the ocean heats up?
Our new research looked at Port Jackson sharks to find out. We found individual sharks adapt in different ways, depending where they came from.
Port Jackson sharks from cooler waters in the Great Australian Bight found it harder to cope with rising temperatures than those living in the warmer water from Jervis Bay in New South Wales.
This is important because it goes against the general assumption that species in warmer, tropical waters are at the greatest risk of climate change. It also illustrates that we shouldn’t assume all populations in one species respond to climate change in the same way, as it can lead to over- or underestimating their sensitivity.
But before we explore this further, let’s look at what exactly sharks will be exposed to in the coming years.
An existential threat
In Australia, the grim reality of climate change is already upon us: we’re seeing intense marine heat waves and coral bleaching events, the disappearance of entire kelp forests, mangrove forest dieback and the continent-wide shifting of marine life.
The southeast of Australia is a global change hotspot, with water temperatures rising at three to four times the global average. In addition to rising water temperatures, oceans are becoming more acidic and the amount of oxygen is declining.
Any one of these factors is cause for concern, but all three may also be acting together.
One may argue sharks have been around for millions of years and survived multiple climate catastrophes, including several global mass extinctions events.
To that, we say life in the anthropocene is characterised by changes in temperature and levels of carbon dioxide on a scale not seen for more than three million years.
Rapid climate change represents an existential threat to all life on Earth and sharks can’t evolve fast enough to keep up because they tend to be long-lived with low reproductive output (they don’t have many pups). The time between generations is just too long to respond via natural selection.
Dealing with rising temperatures
When it comes to dealing with rising water temperature, sharks have two options: they can change their physiology to adapt, or move towards the poles to cooler waters.
Moving to cooler waters is one of the more obvious responses to climate change, while subtle impacts on physiology, as we studied, have largely been ignored to date. However, they can have big impacts on individual, and ultimately species, distributions and survival.
We collected Port Jackson sharks from cold water around Adelaide and warm water in Jervis Bay.