Extreme heat events and the vulnerability of endemic montane fishes to climate change
2 July 2019Troia, Matthew; Giam, Xingli
Identifying how close species live to their physiological thermal maxima is essential to understand historical warm-edge elevational limits of montane faunas and forecast upslope shifts caused by future climate change. We used laboratory experiments to quantify the thermal tolerance and acclimation potential of four fishes (Notropis leuciodus, N. rubricroceus, Etheostoma rufilineatum, E. chlorobranchium) that are endemic to the southern Appalachian Mountains (USA), exhibit different historical elevational limits, and represent the two most species-rich families in the region. All-subsets selection of linear regression models using AICc indicated that species, acclimation temperature, collection location and month, and the interaction between species and acclimation temperature were important predictors of thermal maxima (Tmax), which ranged from 28.5 to 37.2°C. Next, we implemented water temperature models and stochastic weather generation to characterize the magnitude and frequency of extreme heat events (Textreme) under historical and future climate scenarios across 25,379 stream reaches in the upper Tennessee River system. Lastly, we used environmental niche models to compare warming tolerances (acclimation-corrected Tmax minus Textreme) between historically occupied versus unoccupied reaches. Historical warming tolerances, ranging from +2.2 to +10.9°C, increased from low to high elevation and were positive for all species, suggesting that Tmax does not drive warm-edge (low elevation) range limits. Future warming tolerances were lower (-1.2 to +9.3°C) but remained positive for all species under the direst warming scenario except for a small proportion of reaches historically occupied by E. rufilineatum, indicating that Tmax and acclimation potentials of southern Appalachian minnows and darters are adequate to survive future heat waves. We caution concluding that these species are invulnerable to 21st century warming because sublethal thermal physiology remains poorly understood. Integrating physiological sensitivity and warming exposure demonstrates a general and fine-grained approach to assess climate change vulnerability for freshwater organisms across physiographically diverse riverscapes.