Iris Catches the Unicorn

Iris with her first sucker ever, a Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Iris with her first redhorse (and first sucker of any kind) ever. April 17, 2016.

As parents, we want our kids to be better than we are and to do better than we have done. The other day I got a little taste of this idea in action.

My daughters have fished as long as they’ve been able to hold a fishing pole. Both of them love it. But Iris, age 9, has developed a fishing addiction that rivals my own.

All winter we talked about the fishing we’d do when spring finally came. We talked about the species of fish found in each local stream and lake and speculated about where she’d have the best shot at catching a big carp, a pike, a gar, or a redhorse. When their birthdays came in March, the three of us went shopping and each girl got a new rod and reel, and Iris got a tackle box. A real one, with lots of space to fill. Like any dedicated angler, she brings it in the car any time there’s the slightest chance that fishing and/or lure shopping could occur.

A few weeks ago, though winter really hadn’t ended yet, Iris couldn’t take it any longer. We fished a little park pond, unsure of whether it even held any fish and, if so, what kind. The only action of the night was Iris catching the first fish of the year in our family. True to form, because this is what kids do to parents, she caught a fish that I almost never catch: a Black Crappie. Not a rare fish, not a difficult fish in general, but for some reason I rarely catch them.

  • Iris 1, Dad 0

A few days later it warmed up and I mounted my first fishing expedition of 2016, taking way too much confidence and gear to fish a great river. All I managed to do was lose two of my favorite spinners and all I could catch (aside from a thieving tree) were a scrawny White Bass and a small Freshwater Drum. Still, I was on the board.

  • Iris 1, Dad 2

After that, though, winter returned. Temps dropped (air and water), rain and then snow swelled all the creeks, and we again spent a lot of time talking about fishing and complaining about weather, making grand plans for spring. A rainy hour on the local creek brought no fish to either of us, but another quick visit to a pond got Iris a Bluegill.

  • Iris 2, Dad 2

Which Brings Us to Unicorn Day

Last week, the weather suddenly got it right. Sun, no more rain, blue skies. I semi-seriously considered taking the girls out of school for a day so we could go fishing somewhere better than a muddy little creek or a pond full of litter. If anything, the warm weather made us even more frustrated than the snow had, and by the end of the week we were both coming unhinged. Something had to be done. A plan was hatched.

On Sunday, April 17th, Iris and I packed a lunch, gathered our gear (well, most of it: I actually forgot my two main rods and had to use a spare that happened to be in the trunk) and headed for a river about an hour south. A river with no dams, clean, cold water, and lots of fish. A river that is home to at least 10 species of suckers, plus Longnose Gar, several catfish species, a bunch of bass and sunfish species, and dozens of cool minnows and other small fishes. Though it is a tributary of the Illinois River, it does not have any Silver or Bighead Carp.

A friend had caught a tuberculate River Redhorse, along with lots of other fish, a week or so earlier, so I was confident we’d get into some fish.

The day was perfect. Almost too warm, especially since the trees did not yet have leaves and there was little shade available. The water was absolutely clear, but still colder than I would have liked. Though a truck was parked at the spot and I feared having to share the river, no one was fishing there. We got our lines in the water, ate our lunches and waited. And waited. Nothing.

Iris took my Perfect Dipnet (I have to give Jonah’s Aquarium a plug here: that thing is awesome) and caught lots of tiny minnows I haven’t yet identified (and probably won’t), but the fishing was slow. When she did finally get a bite, it was a Smallmouth Bass that got off before she could land it. Other than the minnows, the only wildlife we saw was a turkey vulture that passed overhead.

A few of the darters we netted while waiting for fish to bite. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A few of the darters we netted.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of minnows Iris netted while waiting for fish to bite. Feel free to suggest IDs in the comments, because I probably won’t get around to trying.

Lots of minnows were around, and some very small crayfish.

Iris in action. Lots of minnows were around, and some very small crayfish.

A Slow Day

We only got two bites all day. Actually, I got none and Iris got two (on her new rod). The second one was so light we didn’t even know a fish was there until we decided to check the bait. She handled it perfectly, and when the fish got close I could see it was a sucker (her first) and then that it was a redhorse. The river holds 5 (and possibly all 6) of the upper-midwestern redhorses: Shorthead, River, Golden, Silver, Black (and I suspect Greater, since they’re in neighboring streams). Iris’s fish had a gray tail and the dorsal fin and mouth of a Golden or Black. We snapped some photos, then she gave it a kiss and released it. I don’t think I was actually dancing with joy, but inside my head I was.

One of the scariest things about being the fishing addicted parent of a fishing addict kid is that I will oversell the potential of a fishing trip and it won’t pan out. It’s happened enough times that I should know better. I hate seeing the disappointment on my child’s face when she’s been skunked after I essentially promised her fish. Even worse, though, is seeing her try to hide it so I won’t feel bad. Knowing that this wouldn’t be one of those days was a huge relief (for both of us, probably).

But back to the fish. It was definitely not any of the red-tailed redhorses, and it was definitely not a Silver. Since Black Redhorse was an imaginary species (as I had established though years of trying to catch one in waters where they supposedly outnumber the other redhorses by wide margins), this one had to be a Golden. Iris didn’t care so much about the species—she was just happy to catch a fish, and doubly happy to catch a redhorse.

Moments after Iris released her fish a Bald Eagle flew over, gliding in slow motion so we’d have time to recognize the emphasis it was adding to her moment of triumph. I was too blissed out to think of grabbing the camera.

Iris before releasing her first sucker ever, a Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Iris kisses her redhorse goodbye before releasing it.

The rest of the day passed without a bite. We netted and photographed tons of cool minnows and crayfish, and a pair of fossil hunters gave Iris two rocks with 300+ million year old fern fossils.

  • Iris 3, Dad 2

We headed home content, slightly sunburned, muddy, and already making plans for our next expedition.

Say Hello to a Mythical Creature

That night I looked at the photos. Out of habit I counted scales and fin rays, and I realized something: that fish had too many scales on its lateral line to be a Golden Redhorse. A Golden will usually have around 40-43, but this one had at least 45 and maybe as many as 47, depending where you stopped counting near the tail.  I didn’t take a good shot of the pelvic fin (because the possibility that I’d need it never crossed my mind), but in the one photo that showed it mostly spread out, there appeared to be more than 9 rays. It’s a crappy photo and not included here. (For those less obsessed with this stuff, the Black Redhorse has 10 rays in one or both pelvic fins while a Golden will only have 9.)

I emailed some biologists and asked them to count scales in case I was just plain doing it wrong somehow. I didn’t tell Iris of my suspicion. The word came back that each of the biologists, including the godfather of Moxostoma science, probably the world’s foremost authority on redhorses, that Iris’s fish was, unbelievably, an adult female Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei).

A Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei) caught by Iris Nelson. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

Black Redhorse (Moxostoma duquesnei) caught by Iris Nelson. IL. April 17, 2016. (The orange on the scales is the reflection of her shirt.

If she was proud before that news, I don’t know what to call her feeling now. When your dad is the guy who is so nuts about redhorses that he has a website named for their genus, and he never shuts up about them, and his redhorse ID art is all over the place, and then you go and catch the one redhorse species on his ID materials that he’s never seen in real life, that’s a power move. That gets you bonus points.

  • Iris 3 (x100), Dad 2

The Black Redhorse is not necessarily the most rare of Illinois’ 6 (or 7 because we also have Smallmouth Redhorse in the state, though I know little about it) species of Moxostoma, but it does seem to be caught less often than any other. I’ve personally seen more Greater Redhorses (listed as endangered in Illinois) and River Redhorses (listed as threatened) caught in this state than Black Redhorses. I don’t know exactly why, but they may be more selective feeders than the other fish in the genus.

Coincidentally, my friend Ben, who has also been seeking a Black Redhorse for years, caught his first one that same day a couple hundred miles south of us.

So, I’m now pretty sure they do exist after all, but I might not fully believe it until I catch one.

UPDATE: A little over a month later, in the same spot, I finally caught my own unicorn. Iris was a little irked that she no longer had something on her lifelist that I didn’t, but she got over it. I think she’s scheming ways to catch other species I’ve been unable to get, and I fully support her in that.

I join the unicorn catchers club.

(Thanks to Konrad Schmidt, John Lyons and Robert Jenkins for confirming my scale count and ID of Iris’s fish.)

 

A little perspective on the relative rarity of Illinois redhorses, thanks to the Illinois Natural History Survey:

First the red-tailed species: Shorthead Redhorse (M. macrolepidotum), River Redhorse (M. carinatum), Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi). (There is no INHS map for Smallmouth Redhorse.):

macrolepidotumcarinatumvalenciennesi

And the gray-tailed species: Golden Redhorse (M. erythrurum), Silver Redhorse (M. anisurum), Black Redhorse (M. duquesnei)

erythrurum anisurumduquesnei

The Black Redhorse isn’t as uncommon in the collection records as 2 out of 3 red-tailed redhorses, but it’s a hell of a lot rarer than its near-twin, the Golden Redhorse. (I would guess that the Silver Redhorse is more common than this map indicates.)

More dipnet photos

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won't. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite, x-rayed by the sun. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won’t. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted while waiting for fish to bite. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won't. Feel free to suggest IDs. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

A bunch of little fish we netted. I have not yet tried to ID these fish, and probably won’t. Feel free to suggest IDs.

This male stoneroller (I'm not going to ID it, but it's either Central or Largescale), sporting nuptial tubercles, was just lying on the bottom of the river. No obvious signs of trauma. It had been dead a while as it was completely stiff. Very cold water, so no decomposition. Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

This male stoneroller (I’m not going to ID it, but it’s either Central or Largescale), sporting nuptial tubercles, was just lying on the bottom of the river. No obvious signs of trauma. It had been dead a while as it was completely stiff. Very cold water, so no decomposition. Scooped it up with the dipnet.

I don't know what species it is, but this little (I assume) sunfish was the only one of its kind we netted. Length about 1" (2.5 cm). Grundy County, IL. April 17, 2016.

I don’t know what species it is, but this little (I assume) sunfish was the only one of its kind we netted. Length about 1″ (2.5 cm).

 

 

 

 

 

Shorthead Redhorse Spawning in Living Color

Spring is the best season. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong. Anyone who claims fall is better is secretly paid to say it.

Among the surest and most exciting signs of spring are the annual spawning runs of various fish in local waterways. The arrival of White Bass (Morone chrysops) in large numbers makes for exciting fishing. Though futile from a reproductive standpoint, the runs of Coho Salmon and Steelhead (Rainbow Trout) up Lake Michigan tributaries in Wisconsin and Indiana can provide some trophy fish.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

Above all, though, the congregation of spawning suckers signals the irreversible arrival of spring. If spring is new life, rebirth, renewal, etc., then hundreds of spawning redhorses are every bit as vital a symbol as any fawn, lamb, Easter egg or daffodil.

 

On the first of May, I visited my favorite redhorse stream (where less than 2 weeks earlier I had caught what would have been the new state record shorthead redhorse) to see if anyone was home. They were.

 

I shot some photos and a little video of the spawning fish. Attempts to get underwater video with my GoPro failed because I spooked every fish in the creek in my clumsy efforts to place the camera, so that will have to wait for next spring.

 

Among many photos of semi-interesting reflections, there were a few that made the cut.

Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015
Shorthead Redhorses (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) during spawn. Kendall County, IL. May 1, 2015

An album of these and the rest of the photos is at https://www.flickr.com/photos/ognelson/sets/72157654024708812

Watch the video https://youtu.be/vVG3-MDrIkA in the highest HD it will allow or lots of detail is lost. (Click the little gear icon and choose the highest quality option you see. Turn off “auto” if necessary.) If you really like hot redhorse action, click the full-screen icon in the lower right corner. You’ll be glad you did.

State Record Shorthead Redhorse Caviar

Shorthead Redhorse (female) ready to spawn

I have asked myself many times what I would do if I happened to catch a record-sized fish. I suspect most of us who fish obsessively have thought about this. There are really only two choices. You either kill it, take it to a certified scale, fill out paperwork and get the record, or you photograph the hell out of it, measure it every way you can think of, then release it and bask in the satisfaction of knowing you caught the record, even if you can’t prove it. (There are, of course, other options. The Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum tracks catch-and-release world records, and many states have some sort of catch-and-release record system, plus it is possible to get a portable scale certified.)

I am mostly a catch-and-release fisherman, and always have been. It is partly a conservation-minded thing: I don’t want to kill animals that would (in my opinion) be better left to grow and reproduce. It’s not that I’m opposed to killing the fish, exactly, but that I usually see no reason to do so and lots of reasons not to, such as the fact that I’d rather spend my time catching more fish, not carrying them around, cleaning them, and cooking them. No one else in my home eats fish anyway.

That said, I’ve eaten many fish I’ve caught. Shortnose gar is a fantastic food fish: the meat is pure white, firm, boneless, and utterly without any of the “fishy” smell or flavor that repels some people from eating fish. It is, apparently, more like alligator meat than fish (having never eaten gator, I can’t confirm this). Cleaning gar is simple, though completely unlike cleaning any other fish. If I catch them in a river with a healthy population (and clean water), I sometimes keep a few. Mostly, though, in order to get back to fishing as quickly as possible, I release them (or they flip themselves out of my hand before I can decide).

I eat (usually smoked) any salmon and trout (except Lake Trout) I catch in the Great Lakes. Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Brown Trout and Steelhead (Rainbow) Trout are not native to this region, are stocked (at great expense) by state agencies solely to be caught, and are (with a few exceptions) unable to reproduce naturally, so I feel absolutely no guilt in enjoying them.

The record fish question is another thing entirely. Is killing a healthy (and perhaps genetically important) fish to claim a record anything at all beyond satisfying the ego? Seriously: what other purpose could there be? It doesn’t really add anything beyond a few data points to scientific knowledge. It might encourage a few people to take another look at an under-appreciated species, but probably not many. The only rewards for catching a state record (assuming it’s not also a new world record Largemouth Bass or Muskellunge, which would probably lead to substantial financial gain) are certificates and patches, a mention in the state’s fishing regulations booklet, perhaps a picture in the local paper, and a story to tell until, inevitably, someone breaks the record. (I think a world record would probably be a lot simpler to decide.)

Until recently, the whole question has been nothing but a thought experiment, a distraction while waiting for a bite. Though I could easily have said, having not been faced with the decision, that I would choose to release the fish, I’ve honestly never been sure what I would do.

April 21, 2015: Kendall County, IL

Fishing my favorite Illinois creek on a rainy April afternoon, I caught the fattest Shorthead Redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum) I have ever seen. It was so much bigger than the Shortheads I usually catch there that even as I netted it I thought it might be a Greater Redhorse (M. valenciennesi), another red-tailed species that is rare but not unknown in the creek. As soon as the splashing stopped, though, I could see that it was an obvious Shorthead (short head, tiny mouth, concave dorsal fin, red tail). I could also see that it was a potential state record. The current Illinois state record Shorthead was caught in the Fox River on April 24, 2008. (Read more about it here.) It weighed in at 3.74 lbs. The weight of my fish, according to the scale built into my Lucid Fishing Grip (I get no compensation for mentioning them, but I have been very satisfied with the product and have used it for many different species of fish —including a hammerhead shark—in both fresh and salt water), was exactly 4 lbs. Though I could not remember whether I’d ever checked the scale’s accuracy with known weights, it seemed unlikely that it would be off by a quarter of a pound. That meant I had just caught the new state record and had a decision to make.

Biggest shorthead I've caught

The biggest shorthead I’ve caught.

Weighing a big shorthead

Weighing the big shorthead with Lucid grips.

Indecision Time

I have a well-documented addiction to fishing. It’s extremely difficult for me to stop. I’ve been late for a lot of dinners and I’ve been lost in unfamiliar forests after sunset. More often than not when I ignore the (at least) half of my rational mind telling me it is time to stop, I don’t catch much. Maybe it’s that I rush, knowing I should get going, and my presentation isn’t good. Maybe adrenaline causes minute muscle tremors that are transmitted through rod and line. Maybe my aura gets stormy and scares the fish. I don’t know. Still, despite knowing I’m probably not wise to keep trying, I often keep fishing.

The problem in this case is that fish seem to lose weight after being caught. I have seen several explanations, though no scientific investigations. If the fish is dead, then loss of water would be an obvious cause of weight loss. Even if kept alive, however, a stressed fish may regurgitate stomach contents and/or excrete fluid and solid wastes. In a livewell or net the fish is also not taking in any food. Maybe their ability to regulate the body’s water content is compromised by stress, causing water loss. Guess what I did. I kept fishing. For several hours. The redhorse remained alive in my landing net in the creek, but it couldn’t move around much. I transferred it to a plastic tub full of creek water for the drive home, and it was still alive when, maybe 5 hours later, I finally found a store that was open on Sunday afternoon and had a certified scale. The official weight: 3.73 lbs. That’s right: .01 pounds under the current record. I later tested my scale and found it to be very accurate, so unless I read it wrong at the creek, my fish had been a record and had lost a substantial amount of weight.

Waste Not

My ego led me to kill a fish, so I had to make sure that it was not totally in vain (and vanity). I cleaned the fish, getting a decent amount of clean, firm meat and a ton of ultra-tiny eggs. I chopped the meat (not wanting to get out the grinder for such a small job), mixed in simple seasonings, cracker crumbs and egg, coated with panko crumbs, and fried. It was delicious, and the hot oil melted any small bones that remained. Fried Redhorse balls
Redhorse fish cake

I fried one skein of eggs in basically the same way, but the tiny eggs got hard and it was a lot like eating deep-fried sand. The rest of the eggs I made into caviar. Their size meant that there was no satisfying pop possible (as you’d get with regular caviar), but the fishy, salty taste was quite good. Shorthead Redhorse eggs
Shorthead Redhorse eggsFried Redhorse eggs
Redhorse Caviar

One note on homemade caviar: if you make some and then forget it’s in the fridge for a few months, and if when you open it to share with a friend he says something like “I didn’t expect that sort of sweet, fruity taste,” then you should probably put in more salt next time AND eat it sooner.

Next Time

What will I do the next time I catch a record fish?

To be honest, I don’t know. Stay tuned.

Black Horse, Blue Sucker

H. L. Todd's 1884 Cycleptus illustration.

The Black Horse. H. L. Todd’s 1884 Cycleptus illustration based on specimen 10790 in the U. S. National Museum (Smithsonian). I was unable to locate the specimen in an online search of the collection, so it may have been renumbered or lost. (Plate 224 in The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, Section 1: Plates.)

 The following was first published, in an abridged form, in American Currents, (http://www.nanfa.org/ac.shtml and see my post about AC and NANFA here) Vol. 40, no. 1 (January, 2015). This online version will evolve as I find new information, new images, and additional sources.

Fishing in the Public Domain

Unlike features such as scale or ray counts, the names of fishes—scientific and common—are susceptible to the same forces as any human creation. What initially seem like good ideas later fall from favor, new discoveries make old understandings obsolete, and the innovations of earlier generations are eventually old-fashioned. With this in mind, and believing them to be important, I keep track of every common or vernacular name I find for any sucker species. Old sources are especially rich in names, and I have examined hundreds of scientific, popular, and governmental publications (so far).

Thanks to the concept of public domain, 1 (click footnote numbers for information and downloads) the Internet Archive, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, and other online resources, it is possible to find obscure and very old sources. A staggering number of publications are freely available online, but much remains undigitized. Unpublished sources are a particular problem: rare or unique sources (field notes, unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, sketches) are easily lost, and those that survive are unlikely to be known, cataloged, or scanned. Any one of them might contain fragments of information (e.g., regional fish names and lore) that their authors never managed to fit into published works. Much remains hidden.

Until the 1930s, no serious attempt was made to standardize fish names, and even scientific names changed frequently. It can be difficult to know what species early observers of North American fishes meant, even when the names they used seem specific. Even the common names of trout and pike in old books are often confusing; the problem is magnified when dealing with less revered fishes such as suckers: suckers exist in almost all areas of the continent and have accumulated many regional and local names, they are frequently called carp, and sucker species were often treated—either out of ignorance of their differences or a feeling that these fish were unworthy of more careful attention—as the single species “suckers.”

LeSueur's illustration of a Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus.

Figure 1. LeSueur’s illustration of a (dried) Blue Sucker, which he called Catostomus elongatus. [Plate between pages 102 and 103.] Kirtland (1845: 286) wrote, presumably in reference to this illustration, “Le Sueur drew his figure…from a dried specimen, and, with the exception of the dorsal fin, it has little or no resemblance to the recent fish.” Elsewhere (1838: 192), he wrote “C. elongatus. The Missouri sucker, and the black-horse and black-buffalo of the Cincinnati market. Lesuer’s [sic] figure of [it] has so little resemblance to this fish, that I drew a figure of it and prepared a description under the name of C. fusiformis, before I had any suspicions that we were both aiming at one species. The number of rays in the several fins and the form of the dorsal led me at length to arrive at this conclusion. He had seen only a dried skin.”

 Cycleptus elongatus

The Blue Sucker was first described in 1817 by LeSueur as Catostomus elongatus (1817: 103-104). 2 Hot on his heels, Rafinesque (1820: 60-61) 3 described it twice: he gives LeSueur’s Catostomus elongatus as his 67th species (with the common names Long Sucker 4 and Brown Sucker), then adds a new genus, Cycleptus, which differs from Catostomus in having two dorsal fins. In this genus, as species 68, he puts Cycleptus nigrescens, with the common names Black Suckrel [sic] and Missouri Sucker. As usual, he was less than rigorous: he admits he has not seen this fish. I think we can assume that if he had, he would have noticed that it had just one dorsal.

As it is morphologically and otherwise unique, the Blue Sucker can not actually be in the genus Catostomus (or, indeed, in any other sucker genus). Since Rafinesque’s Cycleptus was the first genus other than Catostomus into which the species had been placed, it is the name Agassiz assigned the genus when he sorted it out in 1855. 5 However, LeSueur’s elongatus remained the proper species name, as it had priority over Rafinesque’s nigrescens.

Agassiz did leave open the possibility that if there turned out to be two species of Cycleptus, one would be nigrescens. It now seems that there may, in fact, be at least one additional species—still not described, so known only as Cycleptus sp. and called Rio Grande Blue Sucker. Nigrescens will not be used as the species name, as far as I know, but it is possible. See http://www.fishesoftexas.org/taxon/cycleptus-elongatus/ for further information.

As evidence of the importance of common names, Agassiz writes of Cycleptus (and of Rafinesque’s shortcomings): “the characteristics of the genus, as given by Rafinesque, are not true to nature. Yet…I do not feel at liberty to reject his generic name; since it is possible to identify the fish he meant by the vernacular name under which it is known in the West” (Agassiz 1855: 82-84). In other words, because Rafinesque had seen fit to write that “it is also found in the Missouri, whence it is sometimes called the Missouri Sucker” (Rafinesque 1820: 61), Agassiz could be certain that the species meant was the one still widely known by that common name.

Though its scientific name was sorted out in under 40 years—a quick resolution compared to some fishes—settling on a common name would take nearly three times as long, and priority would have no role at all in the decision.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Paul Schumann with a Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

Blue Sucker from Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann. See http://www.roughfish.com/content/thousand-miles-blue-sucker for details.

They really do get THAT blue! Blue Sucker from the Republican River, Kansas (April 2012). Photo by Paul Schumann.

Wisconsin River Blue Sucker (May 15, 2013). Photo by Olaf Nelson

Wisconsin River Blue Sucker (electrofished by Wisconsin DNR personnel, May 15, 2013). (Photo by Olaf Nelson)

Corey Geving holding a Blue Sucker.

Corey Geving, founder of roughfish.com, with a large Blue Sucker electrofished in Mississippi River Pool 2, Ramsey County, Minnesota, April 2007. (Photo by Jenny Kruckenberg)

Color Confusion

As names go, Blue Sucker is perfectly appropriate: these fish can be strikingly blue (see Paul Schumann’s photos, above). They may also be golden, pale gray (like the one Corey Geving is holding, above), jet black, brown, or combinations of these colors and more (like the Wisconsin River Blue Sucker, above). Interestingly, early descriptions of the species never mention the color blue. LeSueur states that he has only seen a dried specimen and can not comment on color. Rafinesque says Catostomus elongatus is “brownish” (and called Brown Sucker), while his Cycleptus nigrescens (which, remember, he had never seen) he describes as “blackish.” (Rafinesque 1820: 60-61) Kirtland (1845: 267) 6 comes closer to calling the Blue Sucker blue. Regarding color, he uses the word “glaucous” (meaning, according to several old dictionaries, powdery white, pale green, gray, or—in a few definitions—grayish blue) in his description of the head. A few lines below that, under the heading “Color,” he writes: “head dusky above, coppery on its sides. Back black, often slightly mottled. Sides and beneath dusky and cupreous. Fins dusky and livid.” Livid (again, according to a dictionary from the same period) could have meant black and blue, as a bruise. The entry in Jordan’s “Report on the Fishes of Ohio,” (1882: 814) 7 mentions color more than many: “the males in spring with a black pigment…coloration very dark, the females olivaceous and coppery, the males chiefly jet black with coppery shadings; fins dusky.”

Kirtland's 1845 Blue Sucker (plus White Sucker and Smallmouth Buffalo) illustration.

Kirtland’s 1845 Blue Sucker (plus White Sucker and Smallmouth Buffalo) illustration.

For almost 100 years, no one specifically mentioned blue, the main color in most descriptions since the mid-1900s. Not until Forbes and Richardson’s The Fishes of Illinois (1908: 65-66) 8 does a description include blue by name (as opposed to “dusky,” “livid,” or “glaucous”): “color dark, bluish black about head; fins dusky to black; spring males almost black.”

The absence of blue may be explained by the loss of color in preserved specimens. Also, coloration can change over the course of the year, vary geographically, and respond to local water conditions. Blue suckers are sometimes light gray, for example, with virtually no color at all. Still, it is not possible that none of the biologists who wrote about it saw blue fish. Thus, “livid” probably indicates blue and black or gray, “glaucous” may mean grayish-blue, and “dusky,” a word most of the writers used (roughly as common a descriptor of color as black and coppery), might mean the gray-blue of a dark sky. “Coppery” or “cupreous” could have been intended to evoke the blue-green of oxidized copper, but I think it is more likely that it was intended to convey the metallic appearance of scales (like the Wisconsin River specimen above). As far as the dominance of black in descriptions—including many in which there is nothing that could possibly suggest blue—and in common names, it is worth noting that specimens were more easily collected in the spring (during the spawn). Since fish are often reported as being darkest at that time, those biologists who saw live or fresh fish would have been seeing them at their darkest. On the other hand, I have handled—and have seen many photos of—blue Blue Suckers during the spawn.

The Many Names of Cycleptus elongatus

Common names found in various publications, 1820 to 1950:

  • Black Buffalo
  • Blackhorse
  • Black Sucker
  • Black Suckerel
  • Bluefish
  • Brown Sucker
  • Gourdmouth
  • Gourdseed Sucker
  • Gourd Sucker
  • Long Sucker
  • Long Buffalo
  • Mississippi Sucker
  • Missouri Sucker
  • Muskellunge (Wabash River, IN, only)
  • Razorback Sucker
  • Schooner
  • Slenderhead(ed) Sucker
  • Shoemaker
  • Shoenaher
  • Suckerel
  • Sweet Sucker
  • Sweet Suckerel

When did the Blue Sucker turn Blue?

No one used Blue Sucker for C. elongatus until the 1920s, but the name itself was not new. Rafinesque (1820: 58) reports it as a “vulgar name” for his Black-back Sucker (Catostomus melanotus; generally believed to actually be Central Stoneroller, Campostoma anomalum). A list of Manitoba fishes received by The Smithsonian (Annual Report 1883: 231) 9 includes Catostomus teres (now C. commersoni, the White Sucker) as “Blue sucker” (oddly, another specimen of C. teres is identified as “Black Sucker” later in the same list). A “Large-scaled sucker, or blue sucker,” (no scientific name given) appears in The Market Assistant (DeVoe 1867: 296), 10 a book of food items available in the markets of East Coast cities, but it is too small to be Cycleptus. Goodholme’s Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information has “blue sucker” twice: first under Chub, then under Sucker (described as small, pale-blue, and not worth eating) (1889: 105; 516). 11 As a final example of misdirection, Evermann, in The Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission (1896: 172), 12 gives Black Sucker and Blue Sucker as common names for Pantosteus jordani (now Catostomus platyrhynchus, the Mountain Sucker).

Meanwhile, the common names used for C. elongatus throughout the first century of its existence in the literature were remarkably consistent. Most texts that gave any at all used one or more of four main common names. Roughly tied for the lead were Blackhorse (as one word, two words, or hyphenated) and Missouri Sucker, with Gourdseed Sucker and Suckerel slightly behind but basically standard.

Suckerel (Century Dictionary, vol. 9, p. 6041), 1900.

Suckerel (Century Dictionary, vol. 9, p. 6041), 1900.

The origin of the first half of Blackhorse is obvious, and as with redhorse, the reference in the second half seems to be to the supposed resemblance of the heads of these fishes, in profile, to the head of a horse. (Encyclopedia Americana, 1920) 13 The logic behind Gourdseed Sucker is not (yet) clear to me. I have seen suggestions that it refers to the shape of the fish’s body, the shape or size of its mouth, the shape of its scales, or to the tubercles seen during spawning, which might have been seen as  resembling gourdseed corn, an old variety common in the Ohio valley. 14 Missouri Sucker can be read as referring to the presence of the species in the Missouri River or to its existence in the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the state of Missouri 15  Though I have wondered about the origin of Suckerel for years, I have found only one explanation. According to the 1900 edition of The Century Dictionary, the name is the product of combining “sucker” with “-erel,” as in pickerel. 16 In the case of pickerel, “-erel” is the dimunitive suffix added to pike to mean “small pike,” but I doubt those who first used Suckerel knew this. It seems more likely that it came from the same sort of name-copying impulse that caused—and still causes—people to call everything from Largemouth Bass to Bowfin to Yellow Perch “trout.” For numerous examples of this, see Cloutman and Olmstead’s “Vernacular Names of Freshwater Fishes of the Southeastern United States.” 17

Cycleptus (Black-horse) from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1899).

Cycleptus (Black-horse) from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1899). Note that the woodcut is a simplified version of H. L. Todd’s. Many illustrations of the species in the late-1800s use Todd’s image or variations on it.

The earliest appearance of Blue Sucker as a common name for Cycleptus elongatus that I have found is in two 1929 articles by Robert E. Coker on the fish and fisheries impacts of the Keokuk Dam. In the first (“Keokuk Dam and the fisheries of the upper Mississippi River”), he twice identifies the species as “Missouri or blue sucker” (1929a: 94, 100), 18 but after that uses only Blue Sucker. In the second (“Studies of common fishes of the Mississippi River at Keokuk”), he consistently uses only Blue Sucker, though he does give “bluefish” as an alternative common name, along with Missouri Sucker (1929b: 182). 19

Though Coker had clearly made his decision, the name did not spread quickly. While he worked at Keokuk (roughly from 1913–28), other publications continued to use the older names. The Encyclopedia Americana (1920) 20 has “Blackhorse, a fish, one of the suckers of the Mississippi Valley (Cycleptus elongatus); also known as the Missouri or gourdseed sucker. It is about two feet long, with a small head, suggesting, in profile, that of a horse, and becomes almost jet-black in spring.” Forbes and Richardson, in The Fishes of Illinois (1908, but unchanged in the 1920 edition), are inconsistent. Missouri Sucker is the common name used in the table of contents (p. v) and one table (p. cxix), but “Black-horse” is used in four other tables (pp. lxx, lxxx, lxxxix, and xcvii). They report later that “to Illinois and Mississippi River fishermen in this state it is commonly known as the Missouri sucker, or occasionally as the black sucker. The name ‘black-horse’ we have not found in current use” (p. 66). 21 Jordan and Evermann’s Check List of the Fishes (1896, but unchanged in the 1928 edition) provides four common names, none of which are Blue Sucker (p. 238). 22 Two works published in 1935 mention Cycleptus: Greene’s The Distribution of Wisconsin Fishes gives Blue Sucker as the species’ sole common name (p. 57), 23 while Pratt’s second edition of A Manual of Land and Fresh Water Vertebrate Animals of the United States gives only Blackhorse and Missouri Sucker, despite stating in the preface that the main purpose of the new edition is to provide updated names (p. 54). 24

Coker’s work may be the earliest publication of the name, but it seems unlikely that he coined it himself. In 1913 he sent a colleague to observe the closing of the gates of the newly completed Keokuk Dam to fill the lake above it. Locals harvested fish stranded in pools below the dam (over a ton), and the list Coker gives uses mostly vernacular names (e.g., “sheepshead, fiddlers”). Among the most numerous were “bluefish (Cycleptus)” (Coker 1913: 10). 25 In this context, “bluefish” seems to be a local name. As Coker repeatedly cites local informants for all sorts of information in all his articles, I suspect Blue Sucker, like “bluefish,” was a name he heard from fishermen, fish sellers and other locals. I hope his notebooks or other unpublished papers survive somewhere.

Blue Sucker appears more and more frequently in the 1930s and 1940s, though the old names persist. For example, both the 1943 (original) and 1947 (revised) editions of Eddy and Surber’s Northern Fishes use Blue Sucker but give the four traditional common names and call it “the blue, or Missouri, sucker” (1943: 108; 1947: 127). 26 Perhaps the authors, who must have known about the efforts of the American Fisheries Society to establish accepted common names, saw that Blue Sucker was the leading contender but understood it was not yet universally established. The 1974 edition of the book, of course, gives only Blue Sucker (pp. 279-80). 27

Making it Official

Though Blue Sucker had gradually gained traction for almost two decades, it did not become the “official” accepted common name until 1947. Compilation of “A List of Common and Scientific Names of the Better Known Fishes of the United States and Canada,” released in 1947 by the American Fisheries Society (and available by mail for 25 cents) had been underway since the 1930s. It was intended to help eliminate confusion caused by the “several groups applying [different] common names to fishes [including] sport fishermen; commercial fishermen; fishculturists; and scientific workers,” and “by purely local names applied to the same fish in different geographical areas” (p. 355). 28 Having worked to make sense of the evolution of common names for years, I applaud the effort.

The upstart name Blue Sucker was chosen over all of the species’ previous names (p. 361). The index at the end of the AFS list includes rejected names, but Missouri Sucker is the only one of the Blue Sucker’s former names included (p. 383). It seems unlikely that no other names were considered, given that the vast majority of published sources had consistenly also mentioned Blackhorse, Suckerel, and Gourdseed Sucker. Additionally, Missouri Sucker was not eligible for acceptance, since the naming committee’s rules explicitly disqualified geographic terms unless appropriate for a species with a restricted range.

The list’s introduction mentions disagreement and multiple rounds of voting (less than half the names on the list were unanimous choices), but not which fishes’ names were contentious. Though I would like to think Cycleptus was a hot topic, I have found no record of what—if any—discussion or debate was involved in the decision. I continue to hold out hope that notes exist in the papers of some committee members, but finding them will not be easy. The AFS is not aware of any records of the process, and Walter H. Chute, chairman of the committee, apparently left nothing in his papers archived at the Shedd Aquarium (he was its director at the time). If Reeve M. Bailey—a member of the first committee and its next chairman—left notes, they might be among his papers at the University of Michigan (and I intend to find out).

In the end, Blue Sucker was probably the right choice. It identifies the species’ family (suckers) and uses a modifier (blue) that is not applicable to other species of similar size or range. The fish is blue, of course, and the name Blue Sucker (whatever its origins) had been in use for at least two decades.

Still, I wish they had chosen Blackhorse.

 

(List of sources and footnotes below.)

Continue reading

1917’s Sweet Smell of Spring in Minnesota: 2 Million Pounds of Dead Buffalo & Carp

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Fins, Feathers and Fun, June 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

Dead Fish, Buffalo Lake, Martin County, MN, Spring of 1917

DEAD FISH, BUFFALO LAKE, MARTIN COUNTY, SPRING OF 1917.
Estimated 175,000 pounds smothered in this lake alone last winter. Game Warden Altenberg of Fairmount made a careful survey of the lakes of Martin county and found loss of fish in twenty lakes, the following, Martin, Charlotte, Cedar, Buffalo, Fish, North Silver, Iowa, Tuttle, Susan and East Chain, suffering most heavily. Mr. Altenbergy estimated the total loss from smothering of fish in Martin county last winter, chiefly carp and buffalo, at nearly two million pounds. There were caught and sold from the lakes of this county last season about 770,000 pounds of carp and buffalo, but several lakes were not opened for fishing by the county commissioners. The loss of fish in Martin county last winter illustrates the folly of closing shallow lakes to “rough” fishing.

The obvious question here: what do you do with 2 million pounds of dead fish? Luckily, the same issue provides some options:

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Fish Recipes (from Fins, Feathers and Fur, June 1917, published by the Minnesota Game and Fish Dept.)

Modoc Sucker Delisting: Public Comment Period Extended

Anyone with scientific or other evidence regarding the health of the Modoc Sucker as a species has a very brief window during which additional comments may be submitted regarding the FWS proposal to remove the species from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife.

De-listing was proposed a year ago (February, 2014). See my post about it here.

The proposal states:

We, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), propose to remove the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This determination is based on a thorough review of the best available scientific and commercial information, which indicates that the threats to this species have been eliminated or reduced to the point that the species no longer meets the definition of an endangered species or a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, as amended (Act). If finalized, the effects of this rule would be to remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. This proposed rule, if made final, would also remove the currently designated critical habitat for the Modoc sucker throughout its range.

If this proposed rule is made final, it would … remove the Modoc sucker from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and … remove designated critical habitat for the species. The prohibitions and conservation measures provided by the Act … would no longer apply to this species. Federal agencies would no longer be required to consult with the Service under section 7 of the Act in the event that activities they authorize, fund, or carry out may affect Modoc sucker.

The announcement of the additional comment period is at https://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2015/02/13/2015-02928/endangered-and-threatened-wildlife-and-plants-remove-the-modoc-sucker-from-the-federal-list-of. It says, in part, “We will consider comments received or postmarked on or before March 16, 2015…. Any comments that we receive after the closing date may not be considered in the final decision on this action.”

We intend that any final action resulting from the proposed rule will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and be as accurate and complete as possible. Therefore, we request comments or information from other concerned Federal and State agencies, the scientific community, or any other interested party concerning the proposal to remove the Modoc sucker from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife…

Only 8 comments were submitted last year during the initial comment period.

Five of the 8 comments from last year are in favor of delisting, 1 (written by a USDA Forest Supervisor in Oregon) does not explicitly state a position but does point out errors and omissions in the proposal, and 2 are against delisting.

Of those in favor, one is a peer review (by the person who has done most of the scientific work on the species’ status) of the science as presented in the proposal, one is a peer review (by the same person) of proposed monitoring efforts after delisting, one is a letter from the Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife in support of the proposal (with a few notes on possible improvements of the monitoring plan), one is from a USGS fishery biologist, and one is a long letter from the California Cattlemen’s Association (much of it describing good work done by individual ranchers so far and promising that they will continue to protect habitat even if they are no longer required to do so).

Neither dissenting comment presents evidence to support continued protection of the species. A letter from the Tribal Chairperson of the Pit River Tribe (of northern California) asks that protection of the species and its habitat be continued and that more be done to protect the Pit River from pollution and degradation. The other comment against the proposal says only “Do not delist the Modoc Sucker. Instead stop giving their water away to wasteful farming endeavors.”

These comments carry little to no weight, since only those with evidence are considered:

Please note that submissions merely stating support for or opposition to the action under consideration without providing supporting information, although noted, will not be considered in making a determination, as section 4(b)(1)(A) of the Act directs that determinations as to whether any species is an endangered or threatened species must be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available.”

Much of the science regarding this species seems to have been done by (or on behalf of) various government agencies to monitor it under the requirements of its endangered species designation, particularly during a 5-year status review begun in 2006 (at the end of which it was recommended that the species be downgraded from endangered to threatened). Since there are few scientists or organizations studying or supporting study of the species (compared to species that are more economically important or with wider cultural impact and value, such as salmon), it’s not surprising that no evidence-based cases are being made against delisting.

Of course, maybe there would be no such evidence if more science existed. As I said a year ago, it is possible that the Modoc Sucker is secure and that delisting is warranted. It has been found in more streams than at the time of listing (1985), and numbers in some areas are up. Threats have been reduced, at least in some streams, and some habitat has been restored. Some of the information available at the time of listing was lacking, and methods of monitoring have probably improved. I don’t think there is any doubt that the Modoc Sucker, as a species, is healthier today than it was 30 years ago. Whether it is healthy enough, however, seems less clear.

A peer review submitted by Eric Janney (Supervisory Fishery Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Fisheries Research Center, Klamath Falls Field Station) says that though there is not enough scientific information, delisting is the appropriate course of action:

I have thoroughly reviewed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed rule to remove the Modoc Sucker from the Federal Endangered Species list as well as the post-delisting monitoring plan. Based on my professional scientific opinion, I agree with the Service’s decision to delist this species. Although specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking, I believe that the available scientific information (based primarily on observational count surveys) is sufficient to conclude that the threat of extinction for this species is currently very low. I’m basing this conclusion primarily on the fact that during the 29 year time period since the species was placed under the protection of the ESA, there has been no apparent reduction in range or extirpation from any critical habitat. In fact, the known range for this species has either increased substantially since listing, or was dramatically underestimated at the time of listing. Also, newer genetic information concerning the rate of hybridization between Modoc suckers and Sacramento suckers suggests that the threat of introgression is substantially less than previously believed and the rate of hybridization is not increasing. So, although the amount of scientific information concerning abundance and population dynamics is relatively scarce, other types of evidence suggest relatively healthy populations in multiple sub-basins. This leads me to believe that extinction risk for this species is not high enough to warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

I predict that the Modoc Sucker will be delisted. That said, if even a scientist who supports delisting admits that “specific scientific information concerning the population dynamics (i.e. abundance, survival, recruitment) for the Modoc sucker is lacking,” and since substantial support for this proposal is agricultural (and, in the case of the foundation that petitioned in 2011 for downgrading, philosophical) in origin, I remain concerned that this decision will be eventually be seen as a mistake. Without habitat protection, and given the relatively short proposed duration of the monitoring program, the species could easily be put in jeopardy more quickly than new protections can be put in place.

The Oregon Chub (Oregonichthys crameri) has officially been delisted this week (the first time a fish has been removed from the list for a reason other than extinction), and all indications are that it truly has recovered sufficiently that extinction is no longer likely. I hope that the Modoc Sucker’s story has a similarly happy outcome.

See all the comments, along with the text of the proposal, supporting documents, etc., here: http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketBrowser;rpp=25;po=0;D=FWS-R8-ES-2013-0133

The FWS Modoc Sucker Species Report (2013), which includes the population data, survey reports, threat assessments, etc., on which the delisting proposal is based, is available as a 70 page PDF.

The World of Suckers (1909) and the Growth of Suckerism

Suckerism is not a circumstantial folly but an active emotion.

Lionel Josaphare

All hail the great unacknowledged scholar of suckers and suckerism, Lionel Josaphare (1876–?), whose work belongs on the shelf with your other fish books. It even includes valuable information missing from all those old Jordan & Evermann books and your $250 copy of Becker’s Fishes of Wisconsin. Though they covered a great many species, they apparently ignored quite a few. According to The World of Suckers, published in 1909,  some of the major sucker species are:

  • The Biped with the Coin
  • The Sucker Who Wants To Get Rich Quickly
  • The Voter
  • The Man Who Wants To Go to Heaven
  • The New Thought Sucker
  • The Soldier
  • The Lover
  • The Girl With the Demon Lover
  • The Sucker in Search of Happiness
  • The Optimist and the Pessimist
  • The Sucker Who Fears Public Opinion
  • The Sucker Who Tells the Truth
  • The Idealist and Reader of Fiction
  • The Astonished Sucker
  • and more!

Cover of the World of Suckers by Lionel Josaphare (1909)Josaphare covers everything you could possibly want to know about suckers AND suckerism.

For example, he provides a definition of the word “sucker”

[p. 1] It has been suggested that the word “sucker” arose from the name of a sweet and unsophisticated fish that skips through the waters of the Great Lakes and inflowing streams. Its aptitude for the hook was first the delight and then the ridicule of its captors, who were, perhaps like many good folks, looking for something at once delightful and ridiculous.

[…]

“Sucker,” then, on the face of it, means one who sucks obviously at an idea. Ideas are the milk of the mind, the nourishment of the soul, the food of national greatness. And even as a cow, or any female animal, unless soft hands or mouths take the milk, would corrupt its product, so would great ideas drivel over and dry without suckers.

He explains the Absolute Necessity for Suckers:

[p. 3] In order that civilization progress and partake of poetic grandeur continuously or now and then, there must be, ready and willing at all times, a predominance of joyful and high-spirited fools. These supply the hurrah and sentiment, money and labor: Make no mistake; these are not fools of the brain, but fools of the world. In themselves they are good, law-abiding, tax-paying, intelligent men; virtuous or avaricious, as they are wanted.

He also provides some Remarks on the Growth of Suckerism (p. 6). He settles a question we have long debated by revealing The Greatest Sucker of All (p. 85), and describes An Ordinary Day in the Life of a Sucker  (p. 102).

Continue reading

New Work on Species of Western Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus)

A new paper does a lot for our understanding of the several Mountain Sucker species in the genus Pantosteus. It elevates Pantosteus back to genus and elevates some old species. It divides Bluehead Suckers into two species: P. discobolus (in the Colorado Basin) and  P. virescens (in the Bonneville and Snake basins). It divides mountain suckers into P. platyrhynchus (in the Bonneville and Snake basins), P. jordani (in the Missouri Basin), P. lahontan (in the Lahontan basin) and P. bondi (in the Columbia and Lower Snake basins). It also provides diagnostic characters for each species.

Influence of Introgression and Geological Processes on Phylogenetic Relationships of Western North American Mountain Suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae) by Peter J. Unmack, Thomas E. Dowling, Nina J. Laitinen, Carol L. Secor, Richard L. Mayden, Dennis K. Shiozawa, Gerald R. Smith

Abstract:
Intense geological activity caused major topographic changes in Western North America over the past 15 million years. Major rivers here are composites of different ancient rivers, resulting in isolation and mixing episodes between river basins over time. This history influenced the diversification of most of the aquatic fauna. The genus Pantosteus is one of several clades centered in this tectonically active region. The eight recognized Pantosteus species are widespread and common across southwestern Canada, western USA and into northern Mexico. They are typically found in medium gradient, middle-elevation reaches of rivers over rocky substrates. This study (1) compares molecular data with morphological and paleontological data for proposed species of Pantosteus, (2) tests hypotheses of their monophyly, (3) uses these data for phylogenetic inferences of sister-group relationships, and (4) estimates timing of divergence events of identified lineages. Using 8055 base pairs from mitochondrial DNA protein coding genes, Pantosteus and Catostomus are reciprocally monophyletic, in contrast with morphological data. The only exception to a monophyletic Pantosteus is P. columbianus whose mtDNA is closely aligned with C. tahoensis because of introgression. Within Pantosteus, several species have deep genetic divergences among allopatric sister lineages, several of which are diagnosed and elevated to species, bringing the total diversity in the group to 11 species. Conflicting molecular and morphological data may be resolved when patterns of divergence are shown to be correlated with sympatry and evidence of introgression.

The article is open access, which means it is freely available:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0090061

Unmack, P.J., Dowling, T.E., Laitinen, N.J., Secor, C.L., Mayden, R.L., Shiozawa, D.K. & Smith, G.R. 2014. Influence of introgression and geological processes on phylogenetic relationships of western North American mountain suckers (Pantosteus, Catostomidae). PLoS One, 9(3): e90061.

 

Modoc Sucker no longer endangered?

Modoc Sucker. (USFWS photo, cropped)

Modoc Sucker (see photo information below)

After almost 30 years on the endangered species list, the Modoc sucker (Catostomus microps) is up for delisting, according to an article from the Klamath Falls Herald and News, by Lacey Jarrell (found on the Oregon Public Broadcasting site) (see also this excellent post on the Introduction to Fisheries blog). The species, which lives in a small area of northern California and southern Oregon, was listed by the state of California in 1980, then federally in 1985. Its decline was a side effect of the usual suspects: dams, logging, road-building and grazing practices, and its apparent recovery is due to concerted (and ongoing) efforts to curtail such damages.

modocsuckerspawning-usfws-flickr-creativecommons

Modoc Sucker in spawning colors

It is a small fish (usually only 3-6 inches, but can get up to 11 inches) with a small range (now estimated to include 12 streams, amounting to just over 42 miles of water). The Sacramento sucker (Catostomus occidantalis) inhabits some of the same waters as the Modoc sucker, and there was concern that hybridization could lead to both species’ demise. Fortunately, the two species use different habitats, spawn at different times of year, are much different in size (the Sacramento sucker can reach two feet in length), and very rarely hybridize.

Modoc Sucker

Modoc Sucker

The delisting process takes a year. There is a 60 day public comment period, so if you know something that needs to be said, you have until April 14, 2014 to say it. There will also be independent scientific evaluations of the species’ status. At the end of the year, the species can be delisted entirely, downgraded to threatened, or left on the endangered list.

[EDIT: I may have misread, or been misled by others’ misreading of, the process. The 12 month period referred to in articles about this story could end with the 2 month comment period. I have to read the USFWS documents more carefully to clarify this, but don’t have time to do that today. Any ESA experts care to comment?]

This is apparently only the second fish species to be considered for federal delisting, after the proposal only a week or two earlier to remove the Oregon chub from the Endangered Species List. As Jarrell’s article points out, fish are not usually delisted for reasons other than extinction. Biologists involved are justifiably excited at the prospect.

Could this move have been spurred by pressure from some entity with clout and a desire for the freedom to damage a watershed for short term gain? I’ve watched enough good environmental news turn bad over the years that I can’t help but be cynical. Though I’ve seen no hard evidence that this delisting is anything other than a consequence of policies and practices that accomplished their goal, I worry that this move is based on factors other than the species’ actual recovery.

The petitioner that started this process is The Pacific Legal Foundation, which calls itself “the first and oldest conservative/libertarian public interest law firm in the United States” and says it “was established for the purpose of defending and promoting individual and economic freedom in the courts.” When someone touting the recovery of a species has economic or philosophical, rather than scientific and biological, motives, I am suspicious.   If delisting occurs, regulations that have protected the species’ habitat (by making ranchers water their cattle away from streams and erect fences to keep cattle from grazing too close the water, for example) will be removed. If such oversight is relaxed, it will not be surprising if the same factors that almost eliminated the Modoc sucker before push it right back to the edge. Or over it.

It is important to note that two other federally listed (i.e., endangered) sucker species exist in the same area. The Lost River Sucker (Deltistes luxatus) and the Shortnose Sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris) (mistakenly called “snortnosed” in virtually all the news articles about the Modoc’s delisting, showing rampant plagiarism and ineffective editing) are found in the same counties and face the same threats as the Modoc Sucker. Both were listed in 1988. Though critical habitat designations were proposed in 1994, no action was taken. A second attempt was not made until 2011 (after a lawsuit that forced the issue), and this time the effort was successful. Regulations went into effect in January, 2013. According to Oregon Wild, however, major portions of the fishes’ ranges were left out of the designation, to the detriment of their recovery. They report that the area included in the new ruling is 75% smaller than what was proposed in 1994. Ironically, the Lost River is not included.

It is easy to believe but hard to stomach that for almost two decades after being recognized as endangered, nothing was done to actively protect these fish. Perhaps, given the apparent success of critical habitat regulations in the case of the Modoc Sucker, there may be hope for these other species. On the other hand, my initial reading of numerous federal documents and news articles seems to indicate that the protections now in effect fall into the “least we can do” category, and populations are apparently continuing to shrink. (See below for links.) In 2009 a petition was filed to delist both the Lost River and Shortnose, apparently by agricultural/irrigation interests. The feds determined there was not sufficient cause to delist. I would not be surprised to see more such petitions, since the battle over water and endangered species in Oregon (and California, probably) is still going strong.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service Modoc sucker species profile includes the 1985 listing and the new delisting proposal, among other documents: http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=E053

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

Modoc Sucker by Joseph Tomelleri

For more information about the Lost River Sucker and Shortnose Sucker, see:
Oregon Wild’s Klamath suckers page (Oregon Wild sued the federal government to force the designation of critical habitat). For an article about the shortcomings of the critical habitat designation, see this article on the Oregon Wild site.
For more info, see the USFWS species fact sheet for the Lost River Sucker and the species fact sheet for the Shortnose Sucker. For all the official documents, see the USFWS species profile for the Lost River Sucker and the species profile for the Shortnose Sucker.

Photo credits:
All images from the USFWS Pacific Southwest Region on flickr. All 3 photos cropped by Olaf as permitted by their Creative Commons License.
Fish on hand original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468673524/
Spawning original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468166405.
Ruler original: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/12468175215

Tomelleri image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfws_pacificsw/7310626968/ (shared under the same Creative Commons License as the photos).

Moxillumination

Sunshine and a cooperative little shorthead.

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Shorthead redhorse (Moxostoma macrolepidotum), Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

What do we call this intermediate zone between scales and fin?

Is there a word or term for that zone of both rays and barely-formed scales, or for the stage of scale formation where they are more hints than scales? If not, there ought to be. Suggestions?

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) small enough to be translucent. Kankakee River, Aroma Park, IL, 9-23-2013

This little channel catfish (8 or 9 inches at most) also had a healthy glow when x-rayed by the sun.