Calibrating temperature reconstructions from fish otolith oxygen isotope analysis for California's critically endangered Delta Smelt

Malte Willmes*, Levi S. Lewis, Brittany E. Davis, Liane Loiselle, Hannah F. James, Christian Denny, Randall Baxter, J. Louise Conrad, Nann A. Fangue, Tien Chieh Hung, Richard A. Armstrong, Ian S. Williams, Peter Holden, James A. Hobbs

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    23 Citations (Scopus)


    Rationale: Oxygen isotope ratios (δ18O values) of fish otoliths (ear bones) are valuable geochemical tracers of water conditions and thermal life history. Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) are osmerid forage fish endemic to the San Francisco Estuary, California, USA, that are on the verge of extinction. These fish exhibit a complex life history that allows them to survive in a dynamic estuarine environment; however, a rapidly warming climate threatens this thermally sensitive species. Here we quantify the accuracy and precision of using δ18O values in otoliths to reconstruct the thermal life histories of Delta Smelt. Methods: Delta Smelt were reared for 360 days using three different water sources with different ambient δ18Owater values (−8.75‰, −5.28‰, and −4.06‰) and different water temperatures (16.4°C, 16.7°C, 18.7°C, and 20.5°C). Samples were collected after 170 days (n = 28) and 360 days (n = 14) post-hatch. In situ δ18O values were measured from the core of the otolith to the dorsal edge using secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) to reconstruct temporally resolved thermal life histories. Results: The δ18Ootolith values for Delta Smelt varied as a linear inverse function of water temperature: 1000 ln α = 18.39 (±0.43, 1SE)(103TK−1) − 34.56 (±1.49, 1SE) and δ18Ootolith(VPDB) − δ18Owater (VPDB) = 31.34(±0.09, 1SE) − 0.19(±0.01, 1SE) × T ° C. When the ambient δ18Owater value is known, this species-specific temperature-dependent oxygen isotope fractionation model facilitated the accurate (0.25°C) and precise (±0.37°C, 2σ) reconstruction of the water temperature experienced by the fish. In contrast, the use of existing general fractionation equations resulted in inaccurate temperature reconstructions. Conclusions: The species-specific δ18Ootolith fractionation equation allowed for accurate and precise reconstructions of water temperatures experienced by Delta Smelt. Characterization of ambient δ18Owater values remains a critical next step for reconstructing thermal life histories of wild Delta Smelt. This tool will provide new insights into habitat utilization, potential thermal refugia, and resilience to future warming for this critically endangered fish.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1207-1220
    Number of pages14
    JournalRapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry
    Issue number14
    Publication statusPublished - 30 Jul 2019


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