Genetic diversity is related to climatic variation and vulnerability in threatened bull trout

Ryan P. Kovach, Clint C. Muhlfeld, Alisa A. Wade, Brian K. Hand, Diane C. Whited, Patrick W. Dehaan, Robert Al-Chokhachy, Gordon Luikart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Understanding how climatic variation influences ecological and evolutionary processes is crucial for informed conservation decision-making. Nevertheless, few studies have measured how climatic variation influences genetic diversity within populations or how genetic diversity is distributed across space relative to future climatic stress. Here, we tested whether patterns of genetic diversity (allelic richness) were related to climatic variation and habitat features in 130 bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) populations from 24 watersheds (i.e., ~4-7th order river subbasins) across the Columbia River Basin, USA. We then determined whether bull trout genetic diversity was related to climate vulnerability at the watershed scale, which we quantified on the basis of exposure to future climatic conditions (projected scenarios for the 2040s) and existing habitat complexity. We found a strong gradient in genetic diversity in bull trout populations across the Columbia River Basin, where populations located in the most upstream headwater areas had the greatest genetic diversity. After accounting for spatial patterns with linear mixed models, allelic richness in bull trout populations was positively related to habitat patch size and complexity, and negatively related to maximum summer temperature and the frequency of winter flooding. These relationships strongly suggest that climatic variation influences evolutionary processes in this threatened species and that genetic diversity will likely decrease due to future climate change. Vulnerability at a watershed scale was negatively correlated with average genetic diversity (r = -0.77; P < 0.001); watersheds containing populations with lower average genetic diversity generally had the lowest habitat complexity, warmest stream temperatures, and greatest frequency of winter flooding. Together, these findings have important conservation implications for bull trout and other imperiled species. Genetic diversity is already depressed where climatic vulnerability is highest; it will likely erode further in the very places where diversity may be most needed for future persistence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2510-2524
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015


  • Bull trout
  • Climate change
  • Conservation genetics
  • Genetic diversity
  • Salmonid
  • Stream flow
  • Temperature
  • Vulnerability


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