Local adaptation and phenotypic plasticity can lead to environment-related morphological and genetic variations in freshwater fish. Studying the responses of fish to environmental changes is crucial to understand their vulnerability to human-induced changes. Here, we used a latitudinal gradient as a proxy for past and present environmental factors and tested its influences on both genetic and morphological patterns. We selected as a suitable biogeographic model, the barbels, which inhabit 17 Adriatic basins of the central-southern Italian Peninsula, and explored association among attributes from genetic, morphological, and environmental analyses. The analysis of the mitochondrial DNA control region evidenced a southward significant increase in the number of private haplotypes, supporting the isolation of the southernmost populations related to the Mio-Pleistocene events. In contrast, morphology was mainly affected by changes in the present environmental conditions. Particularly, the number of scales and fish coloration were clearly associated to latitude, and thus thermal and hydrological conditions. Other morphometric and functional traits varied under the selective pressure of other environmental factors like elevation and distance from headwater. These results highlight the sensitivity of barbels to climate changes, which can serve as a basis for future eco-evolutionary and conservation studies.
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