Complex physiological traits, such as routine aerobic metabolic rate or exercise performance, are indicators of the functional integrity of fish that can reveal sub-lethal toxicological effects of aquatic pollutants. These traits have proved valuable in laboratory investigations of the sub-lethal effects of heavy metals, ammonia and various xenobiotics. It is not known, however, whether they can also function as biomarkers of the complex potential range of effects upon overall functional integrity caused by exposure to mixtures of chemicals in polluted natural environments. The current study used portable swimming respirometers to compare exercise performance and respiratory metabolism of fish exposed in cages for three weeks to either clean or polluted sites on three urban European river systems: the river Lambro, Milan, Italy; the rivers Blythe, Cole and Tame, Birmingham, UK; and the river Amstel, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The UK and Italian rivers were variously polluted with high levels of both bioavailable heavy metals and organics, and the Amstel by mixtures of bioavailable organics at high concentrations. In both the UK and Italy, indigenous chub (Leuciscus cephalus) exposed to clean or polluted sites swam equally well in an initial performance test, but the chub from polluted sites could not repeat this performance after a brief recovery interval. These animals were unable to raise the metabolic rate and allocate oxygen towards exercise in the second trial, an effect confirmed in successive campaigns in Italy. Swimming performance was therefore a biomarker indicator of pollutant exposure in chub exposed at these sites. Exposure to polluted sites on the river Amstel did not affect the repeat swimming performance of cultured cloned carp (Cyprinus carpio), indicating either a species-specific tolerance or relative absence of heavy metals. However, measurements of oxygen uptake during swimming revealed increased rates of routine aerobic metabolism in both chub and carp at polluted sites in all of the rivers studied, indicating a sub-lethal metabolic loading effect. Therefore, the physiological traits of exercise performance and metabolic rate have potential as biomarkers of the overall sub-lethal toxic effects of exposure to complex mixtures of pollutants in rivers, and may also provide insight into why fish do not colonize some polluted environments.
- exercise performance
- metabolic rate