Cryptic declines of small, cold-water specialists highlight potential vulnerabilities of headwater streams as climate refugia

Blake R. Hossack, Michael T. LeMoine, Emily B. Oja, Lisa A. Eby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Increasing temperatures and climate-driven disturbances like wildfire are a growing threat to many species, including cold-water specialists. Montane areas and cold streams are often considered climate refugia that buffer communities against change. However, climate refugia are often species-specific, and despite growing awareness that life histories and habitat requirements shape responses to change, small or non-game species are often under-represented in monitoring and planning programs. A recent study in Montana, USA, revealed much larger warming-related declines in occupancy for small, non-game slimy sculpin (Cottus cognatus) between 1993 and 1995 and 2011–2013 than for two socially valued salmonid fishes that shape regional conservation efforts. To broaden insight into climate change vulnerabilities of headwater stream communities, we analyzed data for Rocky Mountain tailed frogs (Ascaphus montanus) that were collected during those same electrofishing surveys for fishes from 241 stream reaches. Tailed frogs occupy small, cold streams and have several life-history traits that make them sensitive to environmental change. We used a Bayesian framework to estimate occupancy, colonization, and extinction dynamics relative to forest canopy, estimated stream temperature, and wildfire effects. Tailed frog occupancy decreased by 19 % from 1993 to 1995 to 2011–2013. Changes in occupancy were linked with increased extinction and reduced colonization where there were fire-driven reductions in canopy cover, and reduced colonization of stream reaches that warmed on average 0.8 °C during the study. Our results highlight extensive extirpations for oft-overlooked species and emphasize the importance of including species with diverse habitat requirements and life histories in conservation planning.

Original languageEnglish
Article number109868
JournalBiological Conservation
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • Amphibian
  • Climate change
  • Fish
  • Population dynamics
  • Water temperature
  • Wildfire


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