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Biogeographic barriers, connectivity and homogenization of freshwater faunas: it's a small world after all


Frank J. Rahel, Department of Zoology and Physiology, Biological Sciences Building, Department 3166, 1000 E. University Avenue, Laramie, WY 82071, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. Historically, biogeographic barriers to the movement of aquatic organisms existed at multiple spatial scales and contributed to the development of unique regional faunas. At increasing spatial scales, these barriers consisted of waterfalls and cascades; catchment divides; major mountain ranges and oceans. This hierarchy of movement barriers produced increasingly distinct aquatic biotas at larger drainage units.

2. Humans have provided a variety of pathways by which aquatic species can circumvent historical biogeographic barriers. These include both authorised and unauthorised stocking, construction of canals and water conveyance systems, transport in ship ballast water, fishing and angling gear (including boats) transferred among water bodies and intentional release of ornamental and other captive species.

3. One consequence of human-aided breaching of biogeographic barriers has been the spread of noxious species that have altered aquatic ecosystems and fisheries in ways that are undesirable to humans.

4. Another consequence of human-aided breaching of biogeographic barriers has been the homogenization of aquatic biotas. Homogenization occurs when a few cosmopolitan species come to dominate communities at the expense of unique native species. Among aquatic organisms this phenomenon is best documented for fish faunas where a small set of species introduced for sport fishing, aquaculture, or ornamental purposes have become widespread throughout the world.

5. Slowing biotic homogenization will require slowing the rate at which species breach biogeographic barriers. This will involve implementing regulations that limit stocking opportunities; increasing the public's awareness about the consequences of releasing non-native species and developing technological solutions that prevent movement of aquatic organisms or eliminate them before they become established.

6. River restoration can influence homogenization of aquatic biotas through two major mechanisms: by removing barriers to movement and by restoring natural habitat conditions. Removal of movement barriers may facilitate the spread of non-native species and thus contribute to biotic homogenization. Restoration of natural flow regimes and habitat conditions may reduce biotic homogenization by favouring regional native species over cosmopolitan, non-native species.