Ecological thresholds that lead to alternative community states can be exceeded through gradual perturbation or as a result of sudden disturbance. Many Great Plains streams have experienced dramatic changes in their hydrologic regime resulting from water and landuse changes that began as early as 1880. These changes, combined with the presence of many invasive species, have substantially altered the fish communities in this area. We quantified temporal changes in fish communities in 3 large river basins in relation to putative anthropogenic stressors, including increased sediment supply derived from row-crop agriculture (beginning in 1880), habitat fragmentation caused by reservoir construction (beginning in the 1950s), and reduced discharge caused by groundwater withdrawal (beginning in the 1960s). We hypothesized that these abiotic regime shifts, coupled with species invasions, would shift the system from a fish community dominated by lotic (flowing water) species to one dominated by lentic (still water) species. Further, we predicted that the timing and intensity of community change would vary across basins that experienced different types and levels of stressors. Restructuring of fish communities across the 3 river basins was driven primarily by similar increases in lentic species, with only a few declines in several large-river species. Current fish communities in these basins share <50% of the species recorded in historic collections, and these differences were driven by species extirpations and invasions. The greatest levels of community divergence over time occurred in western Kansas basins that experienced the most intense groundwater withdrawals and fragmentation by reservoirs. An alarming result from this analysis was the recent (after 1991) expansion of several invasive species in the Arkansas and lower Kansas River basins and the decline or extirpation of several native species where flow regimes are less heavily altered. Accelerating changes in the biota and habitat identified by our retrospective analysis highlight potential complications for restoring the habitat and native fish communities to a previous state.
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