A new study suggests that the increasing acidification of the oceans is likely to interfere with the ability of fish to reproduce.
Researchers found that elevated levels of CO2, which make the waters more acidic, saw significantly lower levels of spawning.
However, other mating behaviours of the same species were unaffected by the souring of the oceans.
The scientists say the changes are “subtle but ecologically important”.
The study examined the complicated mating behaviours of ocellated wrasse, a common Mediterranean fish.
There are three different types of male who compete to father the offspring of this species.
Dominant males build nests and provide defence, while satellite males aid the dominants in return for a share of the eggs. “Sneaker” males hover around the nests and try and take advantage when the dominants are distracted.
The researchers filmed and studied the complex interactions of these creatures in areas near underwater volcanic vents which seep CO2 into the water.
The higher levels of CO2 make the sea much more acidic in this area off the coast of southern Italy, equivalent to what is expected more widely around the world by the end of this century.
The scientists found that many mating behaviours were unaffected but that dominant male spawning with females was reduced by almost two thirds in areas of high CO2.
The researchers argue that the increased CO2 may be impacting the abilities of the dominant males to make rapid decisions.
“The dominant males have to find a trade off in chasing off sneakers and at the same time inviting females to pair spawn,” said Prof Mario Milazzo from the University of Palermo who led the study.
“They are not more stupid but they are slower in taking their decisions.”
But while the number of pair spawnings for the dominant males declined, genetic testing showed that that the dominants increased their chance of fathering the offspring from 38% in the areas with lower levels of CO2 up to 58% in the higher areas.
Prof Milazzo believes the changes in acidification may be impacting the sperm quality of the other competing male wrasse.
“What we are trying to assess is the different sperm mobility and sperm quality – the sneaker male is genetically different so it could be that the sperm quality could be affected in a different way.”
The new study adds to the body of evidence that changes to the pH levels of the oceans are likely to have significant impacts on sea creatures especially crustaceans who’s ability to build their shells will be impaired by increased acidity.
Other researchers in the field have praised the new work for carrying out the research in the natural environment, but are wary of drawing too many conclusions from one paper.
“As the authors correctly point out, we currently have almost no measurements and thus almost no idea, how high CO2 conditions in the future ocean will affect fish reproduction,” said Dr Hannes Baumann from the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the study.
“It is important to continue working on these questions, while being careful not to overstate the importance of any single observation.”
Scientists involved with the paper agree that the study raises questions that will need further, targeted research. They argue that what they have found may well be a subtle effect, but it is significant.
“It’s the first time anyone has looked at mating systems which are very delicate biological systems,” said another author, Dr Andrew Foggo from the University of Plymouth.
“It is part of a jigsaw that we are building up piece by piece and as we add more pieces we start to see a probability of really quite considerable change in response to acidification.”
The study has been published in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B.
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