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To survive under extreme conditions, Wyoming fish evolve rapidly

Researchers collect data on trout in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
Courtesy of Lucia Combrink
University of Wyoming
Researchers collect data on trout in the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

News brief: 

People have been stocking fish in the Mountain West’s high alpine lakes for decades – often for the enjoyment of anglers. In central Wyoming, some trout are showing signs of rapid evolution as they survive in harsh conditions.

A research team at the University of Wyoming recently released a report documenting evolutionary adaptation in cutthroat and golden trout in the Wind River Range.

Lead author Lucia Combrink said she became interested in the topic because of the extreme nature of these lakes. Often, they’re above 10,000 feet and covered in ice for more than half of the year.

“I think there's a lot of pressure for [the stocked fish] to adapt, otherwise they just won't make it,” Combrink said. The team’s report was published in the journal Evolution.

The report found that trout stocked in the 20th century developed physical attributes in their gills in just a few generations to process their food – usually zooplankton – more efficiently.

Combrink said this research highlights how human disturbances can alter ecosystems quickly – and how resilient life can be even as circumstances quickly change.

“It's an example of where the legacy of the past leads us to find these exciting scientific discoveries,” she said.

Combrink said scientists should further explore how fish stocking has affected lakes across the region.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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