Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The effects of Medieval dams on genetic divergence and demographic history in brown trout populations

Michael M Hansen1*, Morten T Limborg23, Anne-Laure Ferchaud1 and José-Martin Pujolar1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Ny Munkegade 114, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark

2 School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, 1122 NE Boat Street, Box 355020, 98195 Seattle, Washington, USA

3 National Institute of Aquatic Resources, Technical University of Denmark, Vejlsøvej 39, 8600 Silkeborg, Denmark

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:122  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-122

Published: 5 June 2014



Habitat fragmentation has accelerated within the last century, but may have been ongoing over longer time scales. We analyzed the timing and genetic consequences of fragmentation in two isolated lake-dwelling brown trout populations. They are from the same river system (the Gudenå River, Denmark) and have been isolated from downstream anadromous trout by dams established ca. 600–800 years ago. For reference, we included ten other anadromous populations and two hatchery strains. Based on analysis of 44 microsatellite loci we investigated if the lake populations have been naturally genetically differentiated from anadromous trout for thousands of years, or have diverged recently due to the establishment of dams.


Divergence time estimates were based on 1) Approximate Bayesian Computation and 2) a coalescent-based isolation-with-gene-flow model. Both methods suggested divergence times ca. 600–800 years bp, providing strong evidence for establishment of dams in the Medieval as the factor causing divergence. Bayesian cluster analysis showed influence of stocked trout in several reference populations, but not in the focal lake and anadromous populations. Estimates of effective population size using a linkage disequilibrium method ranged from 244 to > 1,000 in all but one anadromous population, but were lower (153 and 252) in the lake populations.


We show that genetic divergence of lake-dwelling trout in two Danish lakes reflects establishment of water mills and impassable dams ca. 600–800 years ago rather than a natural genetic population structure. Although effective population sizes of the two lake populations are not critically low they may ultimately limit response to selection and thereby future adaptation. Our results demonstrate that populations may have been affected by anthropogenic disturbance over longer time scales than normally assumed.

Approximate Bayesian Computation; Divergence time; Effective population size; Habitat fragmentation; Isolation-with-gene-flow model; Microsatellite DNA