• disturbance;
  • drying;
  • fish movement;
  • patch dynamics;
  • refuge habitats;
  • scale


  • 1
    Drought is a natural disturbance of aquatic ecosystems and can be a major factor in structuring aquatic communities. For individuals, populations and communities to persist in disturbed environments, they must have refuge from disturbance or disturbance must be minimal. Refugia convey spatial and temporal resistance or resilience in the face of disturbance, but the role of refugia in aquatic systems remains poorly understood.
    2. We review available literature on aquatic refugia for fishes in order to synthesise current knowledge and provide suggestions for needed research. Our objectives were to clarify definitions of disturbance and refugia in the context of drought in aquatic systems, review how refuge habitats influence fish community structure, and consider the potential impact of refugia on fish population and community dynamics during drought.
    3. Droughts cause a decrease in surface area/volume and an increase in extremes of physical and chemical water quality parameters. These conditions are linked with biotic interactions that structure the community of fishes residing in low-flow or dry season refugia by increasing mortality rates, decreasing birth rates and/or increasing migration rates. Many aquatic organisms seek refuge from disturbance and/or have adaptations (e.g. physiological tolerance) that provide refuge.
    4. Drought in aquatic systems leads to shifts in refugia spacing and connectance at multiple spatial and temporal scales. Refuge size, disturbance intensity, and mobility of organisms is predicted to play a large role in population persistence. We expect that refuge habitats will experience net immigration during drying and net emigration after rewetting, with the opposite occurring in surrounding habitat patches. Population dynamics of fishes using refugia during drought are best modelled by modified source-sink dynamics, but dynamics are likely to change with spatial scale.