I’m not even going to try to hide it. Very little got accomplished this week in the field. We had a lot of struggles early with equipment malfunctions, and no sooner than we started making progress it started raining. That’s field work, and we’ll try again next week.
When I started this blog I intended it to be both a source of updates for my studies, but also a place where interesting research by other trout ecologists could be made more accessible. While I tackle a few big-picture questions in the Previous Research tab, hundreds of research articles are published every day. Unfortunately, these articles are often hard to access without a university affiliation, and sometimes even harder to understand without a dictionary and a lot of patience. The knowledge used to manage our natural resources shouldn’t be held captive in the hands of a select few. Science has to do better.
The unexpected lull in field work left me a little time to catch-up on the growing stack of articles I’ve saved over the past few months. So, there’s no better time to start realizing the next phase of this website and discuss some interesting research by my fellow ecologists. In this inaugural research blog I discuss a paper that addresses the question:
How High Can a Trout Jump?
First off, why do we care? In addition to the increasingly large number of man-made barriers to trout movement (e.g., bridges), mountain streams have many waterfalls of various shapes and sizes. Knowing whether a fish can swim upstream of a barrier has significant implications for management. If a barrier is passable, then the population is said to be “connected,” which is important because connected populations are more resistant to extirpation (a concept I explain more detail here). However, if a barrier is not passable, a population will become separated into two subpopulations, each with a higher risk of collapsing and being extirpated when there is a disturbance.
One way to determine whether a population is connected is to measure genetic relatedness within and among populations. Now, bear with me. I know a lot of people hear “genetics” and tune out thinking the words to follow are going to be impossibly complicated and uninteresting (I once, and sometimes still do, fall into that category). But, the concept is quite easy, and it’s fascinating that we can do this study in fish. When we check for genetic relatedness, we are interested to see how similar the genetic composition is of fish within and among populations. If the genetics are similar, then we know the population is connected.
Put another way, checking for genetic connectivity is basically the equivalent of determining how genetically related everyone is at a family reunion (within-population) and then comparing that family to families across the United States (among-population). You would expect that within-population genetic relatedness would be high because you’re measuring parents, siblings, and cousins that share similar genes. You would also expect that families that live near one another would be genetically different, but still somewhat similar because individuals can easily cross over (marry) into other families. However, we wouldn’t expect a family from Pennsylvania to be too closely related to one from California because not too many people move that far away.
The question is, how many states away do we start seeing families becoming distinctly different? To bring this back to trout, how tall does a barrier have to be before trout can no longer swim past it and there are two genetically distinct populations?
This is the question that Anne Timm and her colleagues addressed in a recent paper published a few months ago in Environmental Biology of Fishes. They measured genetic relatedness of populations upstream and downstream of waterfalls ranging in height from 5-200 feet. They found that 13-foot barriers were large enough to significantly reduce genetic relatedness between two populations, but population separated by smaller barriers still had some degree of connection. This means that brook trout are at least sometimes capable of moving upstream of barriers that are less than 13-feet tall. That’s a really tall jump!
That statement is qualified by “sometimes” because movement is highly dependent on stream flow, availability of pool habitat near the falls for resting, and slope of the fall. So, in reality, 13-feet is an extreme maximum, and it’s unlikely that trout are regularly swimming upstream of barriers that tall. In fact, other biologists have found maximum jumping height to be less than 5 feet for brook trout, which is probably a more realistic height for trout to regularly jump.
More connected populations also have more genetic diversity, meaning that there are more genes in the entire gene pool. Thinking back to humans, a more connected population might have genes for all the possible colors of hair, but disconnected populations might lose the genes for red hair. As predicted, Timm and others also found that genetic diversity of upstream populations decreases when falls exceed 13 feet tall. This is problematic because more genetically diverse populations are usually more likely to survive environmental change, so this suggests that populations upstream of large falls may be more prone to extirpation.
What can we do with this information? Of course we aren’t going to remove waterfalls or artificially connect population near falls. But, it does give a quick threshold for identifying impassable barriers, which could help locate disconnected populations that may be at a higher risk of extirpation. Once identified, populations can receive special consideration for receiving additional habitat protection or possibly stocking to supplement genetic diversity. But, stocking has its own problems, a topic we’ll have to save for another time.