Increased sediment deposition triggered by climate change impacts freshwater pearl mussel habitats and metapopulations.
The freshwater pearl mussel Margaritifera margaritifera is a benthic organism sensitive to hydrological regime alterations and habitat degradation driven by excessive fine bed material deposit (FBMD). Both issues are potentially exacerbated by climate change. Understanding how climate change affects future mussel habitats and the dispersal among them (dependent on the brown trout as fish host) can support the planning of effective conservation actions. To project the impacts of climate change on the mussel, a semi-mechanistic modelling cascade was implemented for the Aist catchment in Austria (630 km2), including a hydrological model, a hydraulic model, Random Forest Models for FBMD accumulation risk and Species Distribution Models. Two climate change models (RCPs 4.5 and 8.5) for two future horizons (2060 and 2090) were considered. A graph-based assessment of the structural connectivity was used to measure the probability of successful dispersal. Results show a reduction of peak discharge that cascades into a widespread reduction in shear stresses during high flow. The mussel's habitats, defined by hydraulics (i.e. patches with low shear stresses during high flow), are predicted to be stable over the simulated scenarios. The pressure of FBMDs over the delineated habitat patches is predicted to increase in the future due to the reduced stream transport capacity, reducing up to 25% of the available patches in 2090 for RCP 8.5. Consequently, the mussel's dispersal probability decreases to 44.3%-75.6% of the maximum theoretical value, with the highest drops for short dispersal distances, impacting metapopulation dynamics. Synthesis and applications. The widespread issue of fine sediment deposition in the streambed will be exacerbated for those catchments where climate change reduces the stream transport capacity. The impacts on the freshwater pearl mussel include habitat loss due to the formation of a new unsuitable substrate, and a decrease in the potential dispersal among the residual habitats. Thus, conservation plans that aim to protect the mussel in the future should focus on the mitigation of fine bed material deposits, prioritizing those subreaches that offer the highest potential for preserving connectivity among suitable habitats.