Geothermal stickleback populations prefer cool water despite multigenerational exposure to a warm environment

N Pilakouta*, SS Killen, BK Kristjansson, S Skulason, J Lindstrom, NB Metcalfe, KJ Parsons*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Given the threat of climate change to biodiversity, a growing number of studies are investigating the potential for organisms to adapt to rising temperatures. Earlier work has predicted that physiological adaptation to climate change will be accompanied by a shift in temperature preferences, but empirical evidence for this is lacking. Here, we test whether exposure to different thermal environments has led to changes in preferred temperatures in the wild. Our study takes advantage of a “natural experiment” in Iceland, where freshwater populations of threespine sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) are found in waters warmed by geothermal activity year-round (warm habitats), adjacent to populations in ambient-temperature lakes (cold habitats). We used a shuttle-box approach to measure temperature preferences of wild-caught sticklebacks from three warm–cold population pairs. Our prediction was that fish from warm habitats would prefer higher water temperatures than those from cold habitats. We found no support for this, as fish from both warm and cold habitats had an average preferred temperature of 13°C. Thus, our results challenge the assumption that there will be a shift in ectotherm temperature preferences in response to climate change. In addition, since warm-habitat fish can persist at relatively high temperatures despite a lower-temperature preference, we suggest that preferred temperature alone may be a poor indicator of a population's adaptive potential to a novel thermal environment.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9654
Number of pages8
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2023


  • Gasterosteus aculeatus
  • Climate change
  • Temperature preference
  • Thermal adaptation
  • Thermoregulatory behavior
  • Threespine stickleback


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