Advances in Understanding Landscape Influences on Freshwater Habitats and Biological Assemblages

Landscape Effects on Stream Fishes: Broad-Scale Responses to Anthropogenic Land Use across Temperate Mesic Regions of the United States

Darren J. Thornbrugh and Dana M. Infante


Abstract.—Anthropogenic activities including urbanization, agriculture, and dams degrade stream habitats and are a dominant reason for global biodiversity declines in fluvial fish assemblages. Declining diversity trends have been well documented in many regions of the world; however, fishes vary regionally in response to anthropogenic land use, resulting from complex relationships between landscape variables and mechanisms controlling stream fish assemblages. To test for differences in regional fish response to anthropogenic land use, we conducted our study across five freshwater ecoregions in the temperate mesic portion of the United States and evaluated data characterizing stream fish assemblages from 10,522 locations across all study freshwater ecoregions. Fishes were summarized by metrics describing assemblage structure, trophic groupings of species, levels of tolerance to anthropogenic stressors, and life history characteristics, with seven metrics used for analyses. Natural and anthropogenic landscape variables were assessed across freshwater ecoregions, and we tested for regionally specific influences of percent catchment urbanization, percent catchment agriculture, and catchment densities of dams and stream-road crossings on stream fishes. We used cascade multivariate regression trees to quantify variance explained in fish metrics by these landscape variables after controlling for influences of natural landscape variables, including catchment area, catchment lithology, and elevation of study sites. Results indicated differences in dominant influences by freshwater ecoregion, as well as differences in the levels of anthropogenic land use influencing fishes within and across freshwater ecoregions. For example, urban land use was the most influential anthropogenic land use in both Appalachian Piedmont and Chesapeake Bay freshwater ecoregions, with fish assemblage metrics showing responses at 10% and 1% catchment urban land use, respectively. In contrast, dam density in the network catchment was the most influential anthropogenic variable on fish assemblage metrics in both the Laurentian Great Lakes and Middle Missouri freshwater ecoregions. Also, large amounts of agriculture in the catchment was the most influential anthropogenic land use on fish assemblage metrics in the Upper Mississippi freshwater ecoregion. Knowledge of regional differences in the top contributing anthropogenic landscape variables and the levels at which fish assemblages respond to these variables lends insight into mechanisms controlling stream fish assemblages by freshwater ecoregions and can aid in development of region-specific conservation strategies to prevent biodiversity loss from current and future anthropogenic land use.