Juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) held in pairs form dominance hierarchies in which subordinate individuals experience chronic social stress accompanied by lowered thermal tolerance (assessed as the critical thermal maximum, CTmax). Here, we tested the hypothesis that chronic elevation of circulating cortisol levels reduces thermal tolerance in subordinate trout. In support of this hypothesis, subordinate trout that recovered from social stress for 48 h, a period sufficient to return cortisol to normal baseline levels, no longer showed reduced CTmax. Further, thermal tolerance was not restored in subordinates treated with cortisol during recovery from social stress. To explore possible mechanisms underlying the effect of chronic stress on CTmax, we also tested the hypothesis that chronic cortisol elevation induces cardiac remodelling in subordinate trout, as previously reported for cortisol-treated rainbow trout. Ventricle mass and cardiac hypertrophy markers were unaffected by social stress. Picrosirius Red staining revealed a trend for lower collagen levels in the ventricles of subordinate relative to dominant trout. However, collagen type I transcript and protein levels, and markers of collagen turnover were unaffected. Indicators of cardiac function, including ventricle passive stiffness and intrinsic heart rate (fH), similarly were unaffected. In vivo fH was also similar between subordinate and dominant fish. Nevertheless, in keeping with their lower CTmax, subordinate fish exhibited cardiac arrhythmia at significantly lower temperatures than dominant fish during CTmax trials. Thus, high baseline cortisol levels in subordinate trout result in lowered thermal tolerance, but 5 days of social stress did not greatly affect cardiac structure or function.

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