Periodic habitat loss alters the competitive coexistence between brown trout and bullheads in a small stream over 34 years


J.M. Elliott, Freshwater Biological Association, The Ferry House, Far Sawrey, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0LP, U.K. E-mail:


  • 1Changes in the population density of juvenile sea trout Salmo trutta L. and bullheads Cottus gobio L. were compared in a small stream over 34 years. Both species have a similar diet and obviously live in the same general habitat. Habitat loss was most marked in seven summer droughts: severest in 1976, 1983, 1984, 1995, and less severe but followed by autumn droughts in 1969, 1989 and 1993. The contrasting effects of habitat loss on the two species were examined.
  • 2For both species, the Ricker curvilinear model significantly fit (P < 0·001) the relationship between initial egg density and survivor density for successive life stages, even though egg densities were much lower for bullheads than trout. These analyses provided evidence for density-dependent population regulation and also identified extreme outliers, most being for year-classes affected by summer droughts.
  • 3The variable effects of changes in habitable area (= % wettable area in sampling section) were quantified by using the residuals, each residual being the absolute value expressed as a percentage of the expected value from the Ricker curve. Significant relationships between the residuals and habitable area showed that habitat loss had a marked effect on survivor density, this being negative for 0+ and 1+ trout, and positive for 0+, 1+ and 2+/3+ bullheads.
  • 4Therefore, during periods of habitat loss in the summer months, bullhead density increased at the expense of trout density. Low flows and a decrease in wettable area were associated with a marked reduction in habitat quality for drift-feeding trout and an increase in habitat quality, and perhaps also quantity, for benthic-feeding bullheads. This case study shows that, during a major perturbation, the relationship between the densities of two species can change markedly in favour of the less numerous species. The competitive coexistence between the two species is therefore a dynamic process that changes through time with periodic changes in the environment.