Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
thesis_access.pdf (2.42 MB)

A fish for all seasons: Spatial and temporal variation in patterns of demographic heterogeneity for Retropinna retropinna

Download (2.42 MB)
posted on 2021-11-22, 09:15 authored by McDowall, Christopher

Demographic heterogeneity can have big effects on population dynamics, but for most species we have limited understanding of how and why individuals vary. Variation among individuals is of particular importance for stage-structured populations, and/or where species have ‘complex life-cycles’. This is especially relevant in the case of amphidromous fishes that typically spawn in river mouths and estuaries, develop at sea and return to freshwater to finish development. These fish face strong selection pressures as they negotiate challenges around dispersal and development in order to reproduce successfully. Quantifying variation amongst individual fish can improve understanding of their population dynamics and suggest possible drivers of variation.  I evaluate patterns and sources of variation in demographic attributes of the New Zealand smelt (Retropinna retropinna). R. retropinna is an amphidromous fish that is endemic to New Zealand. While most populations have a sea-going larval stage, a number of landlocked freshwater populations occur, with the largest landlocked population residing in Lake Taupo. Here R. retropinna are presented with a variety of littoral feeding/spawning habitats and environmental conditions that may vary across distinct regions of the lake. In addition, the protracted spawning period for this species in Lake Taupo (occurring over eight months of the year) provides additional scope for seasonal variation to influence demographic attributes of individuals.  I sampled R. retropinna from discrete coastal habitats (beach or river) that were located in the eastern, southern and western regions of the lake. I evaluated patterns of variation in the size-structure, age-structure and morphology of R. retropinna among habitats and/or regions across Lake Taupo. I used otoliths to reconstruct demographic histories (ages, growth rates, hatch dates) of individuals, and used a set of statistical models to infer spatial variation in demographic histories. I found differences in size and age structure between regions, and a temporal effect of hatch date on larval/juvenile growth rates.  In addition, I obtained samples of R. retropinna from a sea-going population at the Hutt river mouth (sampled fish were presumed to be migrating upstream after their development period in Wellington Harbour and/or adjacent coastal environments). While Lake Taupo is large, deep, fresh, oligotrophic and strongly stratified for 8-9 months outside of winter, Wellington Harbour is less than a sixth of the area, shallow, saline, eutrophic and never stratified. These greatly differing environmental conditions led me to expect that these systems’ R. retropinna populations would carry significantly different demographic attributes. I compared the hatching phenology, recruitment age, body morphology, and individual growth histories (reconstructed from otoliths) of R. retropinna sampled from Lake Taupo and Wellington Harbour. I explored the relationships between demographic variation and environmental variation (water temperature, chlorophyll a) for the two systems and found that this additional environmental information could account for much of the seasonal variation in daily otolith increment widths of R. retropinna. My results also suggest that while the two sampled populations likely share similar hatching and spawning phenologies, individuals from Lake Taupo tend to grow more slowly, particularly during winter, and end up smaller than sea-going fish sampled near Wellington. I speculate that these differences reflect variation in food supply (zooplankton may be limited in Lake Taupo over winter).  Overall, my results demonstrate a high degree of variation in morphological and life-history traits within a single species, potentially driven by an interaction between environmental variation and timing of development. My work contributes to a growing body of literature on demographic heterogeneity, and may help to inform the management of landlocked populations of R. retropinna in Lake Taupo.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Marine Biology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Shima, Jeffrey