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Keywords:

  • empirical data;
  • predictive modelling;
  • range shift;
  • species distribution

Summary

1. Climate change could be one of the main threats faced by aquatic ecosystems and freshwater biodiversity. Improved understanding, monitoring and forecasting of its effects are thus crucial for researchers, policy makers and biodiversity managers.

2. Here, we provide a review and some meta-analyses of the literature reporting both observed and predicted climate-induced effects on the distribution of freshwater fish. After reviewing three decades of research, we summarise how methods in assessing the effects of climate change have evolved, and whether current knowledge is geographically or taxonomically biased. We conducted multispecies qualitative and quantitative analyses to find out whether the observed responses of freshwater fish to recent changes in climate are consistent with those predicted under future climate scenarios.

3. We highlight the fact that, in recent years, freshwater fish distributions have already been affected by contemporary climate change in ways consistent with anticipated responses under future climate change scenarios: the range of most cold-water species could be reduced or shift to higher altitude or latitude, whereas that of cool- and warm-water species could expand or contract.

4. Most evidence about the effects of climate change is underpinned by the large number of studies devoted to cold-water fish species (mainly salmonids). Our knowledge is still incomplete, however, particularly due to taxonomic and geographic biases.

5. Observed and expected responses are well correlated among families, suggesting that model predictions are supported by empirical evidence. The observed effects are of greater magnitude and show higher variability than the predicted effects, however, indicating that other drivers of changes may be interacting with climate and seriously affecting freshwater fish.

6. Finally, we suggest avenues of research required to address current gaps in what we know about the climate-induced effects on freshwater fish distribution, including (i) the need for more long-term data analyses, (ii) the assessment of climate-induced effects at higher levels of organisation (e.g. assemblages), (iii) methodological improvements (e.g. accounting for uncertainty among projections and species’ dispersal abilities, combining both distributional and empirical approaches and including multiple non-climatic stressors) and (iv) systematic confrontation of observed versus predicted effects across multi-species assemblages and at several levels of biological organisation (i.e. populations and assemblages).