Monday, February 13, 2012

It's the small fish in life that keep us going!

Flame Chubs on exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium
(Photo courtesy of Todd Stailey)
While many people view small fish simply as bait, to aquatic biologists they can be important indicators of water quality in our streams.  In August 2011, two Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) biologists made an unexpected find of some beautiful “bait” near Franklin, KY… a group of bright red Flame Chubs! This small minnow, found in clear springs and streams in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, had not been seen in Kentucky waters since the 1880s. This exciting discovery for Dr. Matt Thomas and Stephanie Brandt came at the end of a day of creek surveys in western Kentucky.  “We were not expecting to find anything very interesting in this creek, much less Flame Chubs, so we were pretty excited when we collected a group of 9 that day!”, says Thomas, an Ichthyologist for KDFWR. 

Spring Creek, Simpson County, Kentucky
Stephanie Brandt & Dr. Matt Thomas (KDFWR)
Because we biologists get as excited about these 3-inch fish as fishermen would a trophy bass, news of the rediscovery of Flame Chubs in Kentucky was quickly passed on to scientists at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI) We have been studying the population status and genetics of the species since 2009.  Because Flame Chubs are only found in high-quality water, their presence in a stream indicates a generally good environmental health. Examining their DNA helps us fine-tune this prediction.  The amount of genetic variation in the individuals tells us which populations are the healthiest, and which could use a little additional help to grow bigger.

Dr. Matt Thomas takes photographs
of the Flame Chubs we collected
In January, I was able to meet Matt and Stephanie for another survey of the creek.  We captured eleven fish that were transported back to TNACI for genetic analysis.  Because this population is currently very isolated from others in this species, it’s especially important that we determine how much genetic variation they have. It’s always encouraging to find rare species in new locations, and we hope to learn more about what Flame Chubs need to thrive.  In addition to the genetic analysis I have also begun studying how much Flame Chubs move from smaller springs and streams into larger creeks during different times of the year. Besides being beautifully colored, this species is interesting from a behavioral perspecitive as well.

We got em'! Kathlina is so happy!

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