Thursday, June 6, 2019

Not Just a "Fish Collection" -- A Lesson In the Importance of Conservation & Biodiversity

Two breeding male sunfish, both less than 4" long, collected
right off our main dock -- the smaller is definitely an
Orangespotted Sunfish; the second, is perhaps less clear
(*see bottom photo; be sure to click to enlarge)
Earlier in the week, I started contemplating what I thought would be a straight-forward information share to explain another neat collaboration between Standing Rush, Toledo Public Schools, and Bowling Green State University. Essentially, I'm replicating an effort that I executed in the summer of 1997 with my undergraduate institution (St. John's, MN), the University of Minnesota, and the MN DNR -- embarking on what I called a "scavenger hunt" of freshwater fish biodiversity.

Twenty years ago, my target was fish of the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Today, through the cooperation and permitting oversight of the Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife, we are building a collection of the fish of Ohio. With all the rain we continue to get, people might start calling me Noah . . . but in our particular case, we're not looking to collect mating pairs -- we are actually shooting to gather between one and ten individuals of as many different species of fish as possible. Each "specimen" (individual of a given species) needs to be in good condition, show characteristic physical attributes of the species, be of a target size, and be from Ohio waters.

Once collected (by net, trap, electrofishing, or even hook and line) and deemed appropriate, the particulars of the sampling location and sampling method are carefully recorded, and then the individual fish are euthanized and placed in a bath of diluted formaldehyde for 10-14 days. Each will then go through a series of water rinses over another 7-10 days before they are placed in lab-grade ethanol (rubbing alcohol) and stored in either glassware or plastic jars.

Brook Silverside (an elegant insectivore with an up-turned "beak" perfectly
evolved to target larval, terrestrial, and flying insects) are another
relatively common species in Standing Rush waters
According to A Naturalist's Guide to the Fishes of Ohio, a timely field guide packed with incredible reference photos and meticulously researched and well-organized species detail, Ohio boasts of some 187 species of freshwater fish (17 of which are either hybrids or invasive species). Our goal is not to collect them all, but instead to build a physical "library" of the most common 40-60 species that are encountered in the state.

These types of collections serve two primary functions: (1) They provide another form of hands-on learning so that students can physically touch and see the dizzying array of species that live and fight for survival in the waters we see around us; and, (2) because these collections can last literally decades, they can provide valuable insights to both students and researchers years and years down the road.
Either Black Bullhead or Brown Bullhead
(very difficult to distinguish & commonly hybridize)
 photographed along our new water control structure,
using a GoPro

As I've mentioned several times before, I am a self-proclaimed "fish freak" -- I can (and do) sit with child-like curiosity every time I get to intimately observe another species. From colors to textures, fin structures to body adaptations, I always marvel at how evolution and ecology intertwine.

Sure, it's my hope that several dozen specimen jars -- and the process by which the collection is assembled -- will spark more fish enthusiasts. But I am perhaps even more hopeful that it will get the gears turning for even more people about how our actions impact our landscapes and how our landscapes impact the life that can be supported.

Unless you are living under a rock, you've likely heard that a recent UN report suggests over 1-million (that's 1,000,000!) species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction -- that's permanent elimination from the planet Earth. Just today, I read of how this loss of biodiversity draws sobering parallels to the 'Great Dying' -- the global extinction of life of some 250 million years ago. (Please consider taking the time to read the two articles linked above for broader context.)

A recent article published in the journal Science also shines light on another sobering (and related) trend, the national and global reduction of protected lands, particularly since the year 2000. These forces are big, they're complex, and frankly, they're scary. At times, they can feel insurmountable. They also strike right at the core of Standing Rush's primary mission. So, in my mind, I have two choices: (1) stick my head in the sand and act like there is nothing wrong, or (2) fight for the mission of Standing Rush while helping to shine light on the broader challenges facing our world. To us, there really is only once choice.

A large Bowfin, or "dogfish" patrolling the waters off our old pump station

Golden Shiner, a relatively "common" member of the family Cyprinidae (the largest group of Ohio fishes)
and an important food source for many larger, predatory game fish

Pumpkinseed Sunfish can easily be mistaken for Orangespotted Sunfish (see top image) and identification is further
complicated by the newly recognized Northern Sunfish (Lepomis peltastes) that just achieved species status in 2013;
all three appear to be present at Standing Rush