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Specialized meltwater biodiversity persists despite widespread deglaciation

May 18, 2020

Glaciers are important drivers of environmental heterogeneity and biological diversity across mountain landscapes. Worldwide, glaciers are receding rapidly due to climate change, with important consequences for biodiversity in mountain ecosystems. However, the effects of glacier loss on biodiversity have never been quantified across a mountainous region, primarily due to a lack of adequate data at large spatial and temporal scales. Here, we combine high-resolution biological and glacier change (ca. 1850–2015) datasets for Glacier National Park, USA, to test the prediction that glacier retreat reduces biodiversity in mountain ecosystems through the loss of uniquely adapted meltwater stream species. We identified a specialized cold-water invertebrate community restricted to the highest elevation streams primarily below glaciers, but also snowfields and groundwater springs. We show that this community and endemic species have unexpectedly persisted in cold, high-elevation sites, even in catchments that have not been glaciated in ∼170 y. Future projections suggest substantial declines in suitable habitat, but not necessarily loss of this community with the complete disappearance of glaciers. Our findings demonstrate that high-elevation streams fed by snow and other cold-water sources continue to serve as critical climate refugia for mountain biodiversity even after glaciers disappear.

Publication Year 2020
Title Specialized meltwater biodiversity persists despite widespread deglaciation
DOI 10.1073/pnas.2001697117
Authors Clint C. Muhlfeld, Timothy Joseph Cline, J. Joseph Giersch, Erich Peitzsch, Caitlyn Florentine, Dean Jacobsen, Scott Hotaling
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Index ID 70211000
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center