Research Output
Non-native Bullhead in Scotland: Molecular and Morphological Identification and Parasite Links with Native Fauna
  The arrival of a non-native species to has the potential to shape native communities by influencing ecological interactions such as predation, foraging, competition and disease transfer. A designation of invasive is applied to an introduced non-native species that has the potential to threaten the continued wellbeing of a native species, pose a risk to human health or negatively impact the economy. The European bullhead (Cottus perifretum) is a freshwater benthic-dwelling fish that is native to England but considered invasive in Scotland. The species was first reported in Scotland in the 1950's and thriving populations are now established in the waters of the Clyde, Forth and Tweed catchments. Bullhead presence is thought to negatively impact native stone loach (Barbatula barbatula) and brown trout (Salmo trutta) parr, due to shared preferences for habitat and prey resources. They are also thought to prey upon the eggs of native Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and brown trout, two species that are of high commercial value in Scotland. In other areas of introduction, bullheads have been found to increase parasite infection rates in native fishes. The species therefore has the capacity to incite competition and alter parasite/host interactions in areas of introduction, to the potential detriment of native fauna and the Scottish economy. The European bullhead has been the subject of considerable taxonomic scrutiny in recent years, resulting in its reclassification as a species complex. What was once considered a single species with a distribution encompassing Europe, Russia, Asia and Scandinavia, has been shown to consist of at least 15 distinct species. Genetic examination of bullheads from England confirmed the presence of Cottus perifretum, not Cottus gobio as traditionally listed in all UK literature and legislation. Native English bullhead is currently protected under Annex II of the European Commission Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC, based on the historic assumption that the species present is C. gobio. Analysis of the taxonomic identity of Scottish bullheads has remained outstanding.
In this study the invasive status of bullhead was explored by examining feeding and parasitological interactions between bullheads and native freshwater communities in south-east Scotland. An assessment of the feeding preferences of native brown trout and stone loach in the presence and absence of bullheads tested competition for prey resources. Parasitological interactions were investigated by examining the shared parasite fauna of bullheads and native fish and invertebrate species. Bullheads from the Clyde and Forth catchments were analysed to provide a molecular and morphological description of this introduced species.
Phylogenetic analysis of COX1 sequences obtained from Scottish bullheads, and a pair-wise distance calculation based on a Kimura 2-parameter model, showed that samples clustered in a distinct clade with English C. perifretum. Significant intraspecific variation was reported in all morphological features examined, but pooled data also revealed a resemblance to the published description provided for C. perifretum. Scottish bullhead is therefore confirmed to be an introduced pocket of the native English species, which is considered under threat in some areas due to habitat modifications and population decline. Comparisons between the dietary compositions of bullheads, brown trout and stone loach showed that the prey selection of brown trout and stone loach varied in the sample locations that contained co-occuring bullheads, when compared to locations where bullheads were absent. However, no direct evidence of trophic competition between bullheads and either brown trout or stone loach was reported. An examination of parasitological interactions recovered eight parasite species from four distinct taxonomic groups in total, of which four species (Echinorhynchus truttae, Apatemon gracilis, Diplostomum volvens and Raphidascaris acus) were shared between bullheads and one or more native fishes. Echinorhynchus truttae was also shared with gammarid crustaceans. Bullhead presence was found to coincide with D. volvens infections in European minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus) and a reduced prevalence of E. truttae in brown trout.
Diplostomum volvens was only reported from minnow found in sites with bullheads, strongly suggesting bullheads were responsible for introducing this parasite to native minnows. Bullheads functioned as an alternative host for E. truttae, diluting brown trout parasite loads and reducing overall infection rates in sites where bullhead and brown trout co-exist. The findings reported for both feeding preference and parasite burdens in the presence and absence of bullheads suggest that bullheads do have some effect on the ecology of native species, but these are considered minimal and unlikely to impact the long-term survival of native species. Eradication of Scottish bullhead may contradict the conservation effort that is currently in place. Given the current lack of evidence to validate bullhead's invasive qualities and the recent confirmation of its genetic lineage, revisiting the designation of the bullhead as invasive is warranted. Active eradication should be treated with caution until a significant negative impact can be proven.

  • Type:


  • Date:

    28 June 2018

  • Publication Status:


  • Library of Congress:

    SH Aquaculture. Fisheries. Angling

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    577.6 Freshwater ecology

  • Funders:

    Edinburgh Napier Funded


McLeish, J. Non-native Bullhead in Scotland: Molecular and Morphological Identification and Parasite Links with Native Fauna. (Thesis). Edinburgh Napier University. Retrieved from



Ecology, disease, freshwater fish, Scotland

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