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Climate change increases local climatic variation and unpredictability, which can alter ecological interactions and trigger wildlife disease outbreaks. Here we describe an unprecedented multi-species outbreak of wild fish disease driven by a climate perturbation. The 2015–16 El Niño generated a +2.5 °C sea surface temperature anomaly in the Galapagos Islands lasting six months. This coincided with a novel ulcerative skin disease affecting 18 teleost species from 13 different families. Disease signs included scale loss and hemorrhagic ulcerated patches of skin, fin deterioration, lethargy, and erratic behavior. A bacterial culture isolated from skin lesions of two of the affected fish species was identified by sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene as a Rahnellaspp. Disease prevalence rates were linearly correlated with density in three fish species. In January 2016, disease prevalence reached 51.1% in the ring-tailed damselfish Stegastes beebei (n = 570) and 18.7% in the king angelfish Holacanthus passer (n = 318), corresponding to 78% and 86% decreases in their populations relative to a 4.5-year baseline, respectively. We hypothesize that this outbreak was precipitated by the persistent warm temperatures and lack of planktonic productivity that characterize extreme El Niño events, which are predicted to increase in frequency with global warming.

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