U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Molecular Ecology (2007) 17, 84–96; doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2007.03510.x


The human footprint is now large in all the Earth’s ecosystems, and construction of large dams in major river basins is among the anthropogenic changes that have had the most profound ecological consequences, particularly for migratory fishes. In the Columbia River basin of the western USA, considerable effort has been directed toward evaluating demographic effects of dams, yet little attention has been paid to evolutionary responses of migratory salmon to altered selective regimes. Here we make a first attempt to address this information gap. Transformation of the free-flowing Columbia River into a series of slackwater reservoirs has relaxed selection for adults capable of migrating long distances upstream against strong flows; conditions now favour fish capable of migrating through lakes and finding and navigating fish ladders. Juveniles must now be capable of surviving passage through multiple dams or collection and transportation around the dams. River flow patterns deliver some groups of juvenile salmon to the estuary later than is optimal for ocean survival, but countervailing selective pressures might constrain an evolutionary response toward earlier migration timing. Dams have increased the cost of migration, which reduces energy available for sexual selection and favours a nonmigratory life history. Reservoirs are a benign environment for many non-native species that are competitors with or predators on salmon, and evolutionary responses are likely (but undocumented). More research is needed to tease apart the relative importance of evolutionary vs. plastic responses of salmon to these environmental changes; this research is logistically challenging for species with life histories like Pacific salmon, but results should substantially improve our understanding of key processes. If the Columbia River is ever returned to a quasinatural, free-flowing state, remaining populations might face a Darwinian debt (and temporarily reduced fitness) as they struggle to re-evolve historical adaptations.