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Exploration of the 2016 Yellowstone River fish kill and proliferative kidney disease in wild fish populations

March 24, 2021

Proliferative kidney disease (PKD) is an emerging disease that recently resulted in a large mortality event of salmonids in the Yellowstone River (Montana, USA). Total PKD fish mortalities in the Yellowstone River were estimated in the tens of thousands, which resulted in a multi‐week river closure and an estimated economic loss of US$500,000. This event shocked scientists, managers, and the public, as this was the first occurrence of the disease in the Yellowstone River, the only reported occurrence of the disease in Montana in the past 25 yr, and arguably the largest wild PKD fish kill in the world. To understand why the Yellowstone River fish kill occurred, we used molecular and historical data to evaluate evidence for several hypotheses: Was the causative parasite Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae a novel invader, was the fish kill associated with a unique parasite strain, and/or was the outbreak caused by unprecedented environmental conditions? We found that T. bryosalmonae is widely distributed in Montana and have documented occurrence of this parasite in archived fish collected in the Yellowstone River prior to the fish kill. T. bryosalmonae had minimal phylogeographic population structure, as the DNA of parasites sampled from the Yellowstone River and distant water bodies were very similar. These results suggest that T. bryosalmonae could be endemic in Montana. Due to data limitations, we could not reject the hypothesis that the fish kill was caused by a novel and more virulent genetic strain of the parasite. Finally, we found that single‐year environmental conditions are insufficient to explain the cause of the 2016 Yellowstone River PKD outbreak. Other regional rivers where we documented T. bryosalmonae had similar or even more extreme conditions than the Yellowstone River and similar or more extreme conditions have occurred in the Yellowstone River in the recent past, yet mass PKD mortalities have not been documented in either instance. We conclude by placing these results and unresolved hypotheses into the broader context of international research on T. bryosalmonae and PKD, which strongly suggests that a better understanding of bryozoans, the primary host of T. bryosalmonae, is required for better ecosystem understanding.

Publication Year 2021
Title Exploration of the 2016 Yellowstone River fish kill and proliferative kidney disease in wild fish populations
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3436
Authors Patrick Ross Hutchins, Adam J. Sepulveda, Hanna Hartikainen, Ken D. Staigmiller, Scott T. Opitz, Renee M. Yamamoto, Amberly Huttinger, Rick J. Cordes, Tammy Weiss, Lacey R. Hopper, Maureen K. Purcell, Beth Okamura
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70219154
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center