The Humboldt Current System is a highly productive ecosystem that is subject to the dynamics of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). El Niño (EN, the warm phase of ENSO) causes vital changes in surface water temperature, oxygen levels, and salinity conditions, which arc reflected in various responses of coastal pelagic and benthic organisms. For very shallow habitats such as sandy beaches, temperature and salinity are considered the principal parameters changing during strong EN. However, the mechanisms by which these changes effect change on the structure of coastal populations remains largely unknown. The surf clam Donax ohesulus is dominant on large sandy beaches of the Humboldt Current System. Its biogeographical distribution is largely influenced by EN-induced environmental changes. Despite the species' key role in the beach ecosystem, the effects of modified abiotic conditions on the meroplanktonic larval stages and threshold temperatures involved have not yet been investigated. After EN episodes, meroplanktonic larval stages play a crucial role in the medium- and long-term stability of shallow-water species. Thus, this study makes a first attempt to describe the ontogeny of D. ohesulus and examines the effects on development of EN temperature conditions (ENTC) in comparison with normal temperature conditions (NTC). Results indicate that early life history follows a pattern previously described for other donacid bivalves. Development, growth, and mortality of larvae were assessed during a 3-wk in vitro experiment, indicating that larvae reared under ENTC grew and developed faster in comparison with those reared under NTC; mortality was slightly higher under ENTC. During a 2nd experiment, larvae were exposed for 48 h to a distinct range of different salinities (35, 25, 15, and 5 ± 1) at 2 different temperatures (NTC and ENTC). At both temperatures, larvae suffered no mortality at medium and low salinity (35, 25, and 15 ± 1) but showed 100% mortality at very low salinity (5 ± 1) after 16 h at NTC and 32 h at ENTC. Activity of larvae was highest at medium salinity (25 ± 1) and lowest at normal salinity (35 ± 1). The results of this study indicate that early larval stages of D. ohesulus can cope with temperature and salinity changes induced during EN. Only extremely low salinity (5 ± 1) such as that observed close to river mouths may cause high mortality rates in D. ohesulus offspring.
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Vol. 29 • No. 2