Scientists have discovered that the rapid spread of hybridization between a native species and an invasive species of trout in the wild is strongly linked to changes in climate.
In the study, stream temperature warming over the past several decades and decreases in spring flow over the same time period contributed to the spread of hybridization between native westslope cutthroat trout and introduced rainbow trout – the world’s most widely introduced invasive fish species –across the Flathead River system in Montana and British Columbia, Canada.
Experts have long predicted that climate change could decrease worldwide biodiversity through cross-breeding between invasive and native species, but this study is the first to directly and scientifically support this assumption. The study, published today in Nature Climate Change, was based on 30 years of research by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Montana, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Hybridization has contributed to the decline and extinction of many native fishes worldwide, including all subspecies of cutthroat trout in western North America, which have enormous ecological and socioeconomic value. The researchers used long-term genetic monitoring data coupled with high-resolution climate and stream temperature predictions to assess whether climate warming enhances interactions between native and nonnative species through hybridization.
“Climatic changes are threatening highly prized native trout as introduced rainbow trout continue to expand their range and hybridize with native populations through climate-induced ‘windows of opportunity,’ putting many populations and species at greater risk than previously thought,” said project leader and USGS scientist Clint Muhlfeld. “The study illustrates that protecting genetic integrity and diversity of native species will be incredibly challenging when species are threatened with climate-induced invasive hybridization.”