UCSC researchers study effects of wildfire runoff on steelhead sense of smell

From UC Santa Cruz:

In 2020, a massive lightning storm ignited wildfires across much of Northern California. Among the thousands of acres it charred were multiple coastal watersheds from San Mateo County to Big Sur.

For UC Santa Cruz fish ecologist Eric Palkovacs, the burns offered a chance to study how the runoff after wildfire affects one of the region’s most iconic fish: steelhead trout. Unlike rainbow trout, which technically belong to the same species (Onchorhyncus mykiss), endangered steelhead hatch in in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean to mature, and finally return to their natal stream to spawn.

Palkovacs worries that chemicals in runoff from burned landscapes are causing the trout’s sense of smell to go haywire. That could mean disaster for an entire generation of the federally threatened fish.

“Salmonids rely on their sense of smell to create an imprint on their home watershed when they’re juveniles. If that imprinting process is interfered with, they may not be able to make the return migration back to their home watershed as an adult,” said Palkovacs, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

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