Wild Outcomes

How the power to choose may drive salmon health.


October 29, 2021

By David Baker

What do Trinidadian guppies, fruit flies, coho salmon and humans have in common? We all make choices. And one of the most important choices for any species is selecting a mate and passing on genetic material to future generations.  

Behavioral ecologist Heather Auld came to the Marine Fisheries Genetics Lab at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon to study the mating choices that salmon make. “It’s an open field, and it did surprise me how much we have to learn, given the importance of salmon to culture and the economy,” says Auld, whose background is in observing the behaviors of model species like guppies and fruit flies. It’s a bit harder observing spawning behaviors in cold, fast-moving streams with long-lived salmon than it is watching generations of short-lived Trinidadian guppies in a pool of tropical fresh water. But the challenge is what makes things interesting.  

Why are wild salmon heartier? Auld suspects that it has something to do with the freedom wild fish have to choose their mates. But how can one small moment of decision shape the health of an entire population?  

That’s where her research partner Michael Banks comes in. He’s an expert in the genetic characterization of natural populations and he directs the Marine Fisheries Genetics Lab. Banks can look at how thousands of generations of decisions made in the moment have written themselves into the species genetic code. It’s a golden age of genetic research, with power and affordability in bioinformatics that allows us to wring more information and insight out of genetic data than ever before. And this is crucial in a time of unprecedented environmental change driven by human impacts on the planet. 

“A lot of the way that organisms respond to change, is they alternate their behavior,” Banks says. Given enough time, these behavioral changes can impact genetics. “We have this glorious opportunity to come together with fields that operate on very different timescales.”  

And as Auld and Banks work toward an answer to the question from opposite ends, they suspect something significant lies in the middle. If they can figure out exactly how mate choice leads to stronger genetic outcomes, they can help hatcheries emulate these choices to help breed heartier fish. Banks suspects that success could “revolutionize hatchery practices up and down the coast…and around the world.”  

 To navigate the difficulties of studying these fish, the research team has partnered with public and private hatchers, the ODFW and its Oregon Hatchery Research Center (OHRC), located in the coast range. With artificial stream channels simulating actual stream conditions, concrete raceways and a farm of tanks, the OHRC is dedicated to the study of the differences between wild and hatchery fish and offers the perfect laboratory to take Auld and Banks’ research from model species in lab settings into the field with a notoriously tricky subject.  

The diversity of backgrounds and expertise is what makes their research tick, but this collaboration doesn’t stop in the sciences. Auld and Banks recently partnered with filmmakers Saskia Madlener and Daniel Cespedes to create the Song of the Salmon, a short film that explores the lyrical, musical and cultural aspects of salmon mate choice, paired with words by poet Luhui Whitebear. It’s just another way of looking at a complex natural interaction, this time through the eyes of the people who’ve been observing salmon the longest: the cultures that have been shaped and defined by this most iconic of Northwest species. 

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