Fragmentation and drying ratchet down Great Plains stream fish diversity

350 210 Stroud Water Research Center

Perkin, J.S., K.B. Gido, K.H. Costigan, M.D. Daniels, and E.R. Johnson. 2014. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 25(5):639–655.

doi: 10.1002/aqc.2501


  1. Stream fragmentation alters the structure of aquatic communities on a global scale, generally through loss of native species. Among riverscapes in the Great Plains of North America, stream fragmentation and hydrologic alteration (flow regulation and dewatering) are implicated in the decline of native fish diversity.
  2. This study documents the spatio–temporal distribution of fish reproductive guilds in the fragmented Arkansas and Ninnescah rivers of south-central Kansas using retrospective analyses involving 63 years of fish community data.
  3. Pelagic-spawning fishes declined throughout the study area during 1950–2013, including Arkansas River shiner (Notropis girardi) last reported in 1983, plains minnow (Hybognathus placitus) in 2006, and peppered chub (Macrhybopsis tetranema) in 2012. Longitudinal patterns in fish community structure in both rivers consisted of strong breaks associated with dams, and pelagic-spawning fishes were missing from shorter fragments upstream of those barriers. Among downstream and longer fragments, probability of occurrence for pelagic-spawning fishes declined or fell to zero during periods of drought.
  4. Based on these data, interactions between fragmentation and drying are hypothesized as operating as an ecological ratchet mechanism in which forward movement toward pelagic-spawning fish extirpation occurs during desiccation, and reciprocated reverse movement toward recolonization following return of flows is blocked by fragmentation.
  5. The ratchet mechanism is capable of explaining the long-term “ratcheting down” of fish diversity in Great Plains rivers and has implications for managing biodiversity in fragmented riverscapes where water is scarce or might become so in the future.