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Species traits and reduced habitat suitability limit efficacy of climate change refugia in streams


Climate change vulnerability depends on whether organisms can disperse rapidly enough to keep pace with shifting temperatures and find suitable habitat along the way. Here, we develop a method to examine where and for which species shifting isotherms will outpace species dispersal using stream networks of the southern Appalachian Mountains (United States) and their highly speciose and endemic fish fauna as a model system. By exploring alternative tributary and mainstem dispersal pathways, we identify tributaries as slow-climate-velocity pathways along which some fish can successfully disperse and thus keep pace with climate change. Despite accessibility and thermal suitability, non-temperature habitat conditions in tributaries are unsuitable for some dispersing species, thus probably precluding establishment of persistent populations. Our findings demonstrate a trade-off shaping the efficacy of thermal refugia that depends on species-specific habitat associations and reveal individual-level dispersal behaviour, body size and stream network geometry as general correlates of climate change vulnerability.

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Fig. 1: Temperature and ISVs in southern Appalachia.
Fig. 2: Frequency of dispersal deficits among 233 fish species.
Fig. 3: Habitat suitability in upstream dispersal pathways.
Fig. 4: Species-level mismatch between net DV and upstream habitat suitability.

David Neely (eh)

Fig. 5: Community-level mismatch between net DV and upstream habitat suitability.

Data availability

Dispersal traits are provided in Supplementary Table 5.

Code availability

Original R scripts and GIS layers generated and/or analysed are available on Figshare at


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We thank members of the Giam Lab at the University of Tennessee for field assistance and discussions that improved the manuscript. Financial support was provided by a University of Tennessee start-up grant (E-011080132) awarded to X.G.

Author information




M.J.T. and X.G. designed the research. M.J.T. led collection of the data. A.L.K. and J.C.M. contributed to data collation. M.J.T. led data analyses and X.G. contributed to data analyses. M.J.T. and X.G. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Matthew J. Troia or Xingli Giam.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–17 and Tables 1–6.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Code 1

R script for fitting and projecting ENM for example species, E. chlorobranchium. The script uses two input datasets (Supplementary Dataset 3 and Supplementary Dataset 4), which are derived from the IchthyMaps dataset and the StreamCat dataset.

Supplementary Code 2

R script to identify upstream pathway with larger (mainstem) or smaller (tributary) catchment area of a focal reach. The script uses National Hydrography Dataset flowlines and associated attributes: ComID, UpHydroseq, DnHydroseq, Hydroseq, TotDASqKM.

Supplementary Dataset 1

Temperature parameters in the first sheet and definitions in the second sheet.

Supplementary Dataset 2

ENM habitat suitability in the first sheet and definitions in the second sheet.

Supplementary Dataset 3

Input dataset for environmental niche modelling script (see Supplementary Code 1).

Supplementary Dataset 4

Input dataset for environmental niche modelling script (see Supplementary Code 1).

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Troia, M.J., Kaz, A.L., Niemeyer, J.C. et al. Species traits and reduced habitat suitability limit efficacy of climate change refugia in streams. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1321–1330 (2019).

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