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Population Response to Habitat Fragmentation in a Stream-Dwelling Brook Trout Population

Fragmentation can strongly influence population persistence and expression of life-history strategies in spatially-structured populations. In this study, we directly estimated size-specific dispersal, growth, and survival of stream-dwelling brook trout in a stream network with connected and naturally-isolated tributaries. We used multiple-generation, individual-based data to develop and parameterize a size-class and location-based population projection model, allowing us to test effects of fragmentation on population dynamics at local (i.e., subpopulation) and system-wide (i.e., metapopulation) scales, and to identify demographic rates which influence the persistence of isolated and fragmented populations. In the naturally-isolated tributary, persistence was associated with higher early juvenile survival (,45% greater), shorter generation time (one-half) and strong selection against large body size compared to the open system, resulting in a stage-distribution skewed towards younger, smaller fish. Simulating barriers to upstream migration into two currently-connected tributary populations caused rapid (2–6 generations) local extinction. These local extinctions in turn increased the likelihood of system-wide extinction, as tributaries could no longer function as population sources. Extinction could be prevented in the open system if sufficient immigrants from downstream areas were available, but the influx of individuals necessary to counteract fragmentation effects was high (7–46% of the total population annually). In the absence of sufficient immigration, a demographic change (higher early survival characteristic of the isolated tributary) was also sufficient to rescue the population from fragmentation, suggesting that the observed differences in size distributions between the naturally-isolated and open system may reflect an evolutionary response to isolation. Combined with strong genetic divergence between the isolated tributary and open system, these results suggest that local adaptation can ‘rescue’ isolated populations, particularly in one-dimensional stream networks where both natural and anthropogenically-mediated isolation is common. However, whether rescue will occur before extinction depends critically on the race between adaptation and reduced survival in response to fragmentation.

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