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Open Access Research article

Contrasting habitat associations of imperilled endemic stream fishes from a global biodiversity hot spot

Albert Chakona12* and Ernst R Swartz1

Author Affiliations

1 South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Private Bag 1015, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa

2 Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science, Rhodes University, P.O Box 94, Grahamstown, 6140, South Africa

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BMC Ecology 2012, 12:19  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-12-19

Published: 26 September 2012

Abstract

Background

Knowledge of the factors that drive species distributions provides a fundamental baseline for several areas of research including biogeography, phylogeography and biodiversity conservation. Data from 148 minimally disturbed sites across a large drainage system in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa were used to test the hypothesis that stream fishes have similar responses to environmental determinants of species distribution. Two complementary statistical approaches, boosted regression trees and hierarchical partitioning, were used to model the responses of four fish species to 11 environmental predictors, and to quantify the independent explanatory power of each predictor.

Results

Elevation, slope, stream size, depth and water temperature were identified by both approaches as the most important causal factors for the spatial distribution of the fishes. However, the species showed marked differences in their responses to these environmental variables. Elevation and slope were of primary importance for the laterally compressed Sandelia spp. which had an upstream boundary below 430 m above sea level. The fusiform shaped Pseudobarbus ‘Breede’ was strongly influenced by stream width and water temperature. The small anguilliform shaped Galaxias ‘nebula’ was more sensitive to stream size and depth, and also penetrated into reaches at higher elevation than Sandelia spp. and Pseudobarbus ‘Breede’.

Conclusions

The hypothesis that stream fishes have a common response to environmental descriptors is rejected. The contrasting habitat associations of stream fishes considered in this study could be a reflection of their morphological divergence which may allow them to exploit specific habitats that differ in their environmental stressors. Findings of this study encourage wider application of complementary methods in ecological studies, as they provide more confidence and deeper insights into the variables that should be managed to achieve desired conservation outcomes.

Keywords:
Sandelia; Pseudobarbus; Galaxias; Habitat use; Breede river system; Cape floristic region; Boosted regression trees; Hierarchical partitioning