Density-dependence and environmental variability have stage-specific influences on European grayling growth
Fish somatic growth is indeterminate and can be influenced by a range of abiotic and biotic variables. With climate change forecast to increase the frequency of warming and unusual discharge events, it is thus important to understand how these variables currently influence somatic growth and how that might differ for specific age-classes and/ or life stages. Here, we used a 17-year dataset from a chalk stream in southern England to identify the abiotic and biotic influences on the growth of juvenile, sub-adult and adult life stages of European grayling (Thymallus thymallus), a cold-water riverine salmonid. The results revealed that interannual variations in grayling growth were well described by annual- and site-specific abiotic and biotic explanatory variables. We found divergent responses between life stages to increased temperature and unusual discharge during the main growth period with, for example, elevated temperatures related to increased juvenile growth but reduced sub-adult growth, and high discharge events related to increased sub-adult growth yet reduced juvenile growth. Conversely, stage-specific grayling abundance negatively influenced growth at each life stage, though only juvenile growth was impacted by the abundance of a competitor species, brown trout (Salmo trutta). These results emphasise the merits of testing a wide range of environmental and biological explanatory variables on fish growth, and across life stages. They also reveal the importance of maintaining high habitat heterogeneity in rivers to ensure all life stages can reduce their competitive interactions and have access to adequate flow and thermal refugia during periods of elevated environmental stress.