Saturday, July 29, 2006

Looking For Flame Chubs In Creeks Without Water...

We went out yesterday to visit the western edge of the Cypress Creek system in Lauderdale County, AL, WNW of Florence. I had five sites mapped out, usually an ambitious day for us, but they were all close together. It turns out that was a good thing, because of a total of six sites we visited, three were bone dry with no water visible for at least hundreds of meters. The other three sites had water, but as disconnected pools packed with what fishes were still alive. This isn't too surprising, since we've had little rain in north 'bama in the last two months. The good news is that we found flame chubs at one of the sites, the last we visited, in the North Fork of Cypress Creek where it crosses the Natchez Trace Parkway. With those results, my total is 47 historic collecting sites visited across north Alabama, and flame chubs have been found in 18 of them, plus I've found flame chubs in 4 previously unreported sites.

Below is a shot of Burcham Creek at County Road 106. In the distance you can see tire tracks, as someone has taken to using the creek bed as a road. This site produced flame chubs in 1974 and 1976.

North Fork of Cypress Creek wasn't a whole lot better, as you can see in the photo below. It was a series of elongated pools, 4-5 meters long and maybe 1 meter wide, with 20-50 meters between pools.

My next task is to sit down and fully compile the list of places I've been and what happened. Another student has been working on a map project so that we can easily display the status of the project. Once I have my list written out we'll have a GIS-based map that we can print at huge size on the plotters of the consulting company where this student works. I think that'll be the core of a poster project at next year's ASIH meeting in St. Louis. And hopefully I could post a version here, too, I'll let you know.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ah Yes, The Species Question; Or, Can You Tell A Telescope Shiner From A Tennessee Shiner?

After last Friday's trip to Hurricane Creek it began to dawn on me that we had probably been seeing Tennessee Shiners (Notropis leuciodus) as well as Telescope Shiners (N. telescopus) in our collections. I'd been calling all shiners with a bent lateral pore "track" pattern Telescopes, partially because I'd been expecting to find brightly colored Tennessees. But we've found no breeding-condition Tennessees, and I realize that some of the specimens we've kept and called Telescopes are actually Tennessees. Believe me, the differences are subtle if the specimens aren't in breeding colors. Basically, Tennessees are slimmer, have slightly smaller eyes, and have a dark rectangular horizontal bar at the base of the caudal. The bar is the only really good diagnostic. I've gone back and re-read the Boschung & Mayden Fishes of Alabama book and Scott Mettee et al.'s Fishes of Alabama and they all agree that it's easy to confuse lecuciodus and telescopus. I fully agree! In Alabama the Tennessee Shiner is pretty much only found in the upper Paint Rock system, and I realize that the only times I've seen it have been during collecting trips in April and May when the fish is in breeding color.

We hope to be able to go back to Hurricane Creek with Nick Sharp for snorkeling some time next month while temperatures are still at a maximum. I'm still obsessed with looking for more flame chubs there; maybe the truth is that flames have very small populations there, and always have.

This Friday my flame chub crew will be making our last trip of the summer, as summer school ends next week. We'll head once more into Lauderdale County west of Florence, visiting sites on Lindsay and Burcham Creeks (I hope!). As of our last trip the presence/absence tally stands at 41 historic sites visited, with flame chubs found at 17 of them, for a running total of 58% site reduction. I suspect that we'll find flames at one or more of the sites this Friday, we'll see.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Hurricane Creek Species List

To date my field group has found 26 fish species in Hurricane Creek within the Walls of Jericho tract in Alabama. This is not the definitive list. I know that a group from Auburn University found other species such as white suckers and greenside darters by electroshocking. We also haven't found any Noturus catfish species or streamline chubs (Erimystax dissimilis), all of which are found in Estill Fork just to the west. I've also removed banded darters (Etheostoma zonale) from the list after examining my collection from June 2; what I had thought was a banded darter turns out to be an unusual looking redline darter (Eth. rufilineatum) instead. It turns out that 12 of these 26 species are listed as Vulnerable or more threatened in Alabama, indicated on the list below:

Species status in Alabama, from information posted on NatureServe, is indicated in parentheses following each species. Only those listed as S3 (Vulnerable), S2 (Imperiled) or S1 (Critically Imperiled) are indicated.

Percidae (8)
Etheostoma caeruleum
Eth. duryi
Eth. jessiae
Eth. kennicotti (S3)
Eth. rufilineatum (S3)
Eth. simoterum (S3)
Percina burtoni (S1)
P. caprodes

Centrarchidae (2):
Ambloplites rupestris
Lepomis megalotis

Catostomidae (1):
Hypentelium nigricans

Cottidae (1):
Cottus carolinae

Cyprinidae (12):
Campostoma oligolepis
Hemitremia flammea
Hybopsis amblops (S3)
Luxilus chrysocephalus
Lythrurus fasciolaris
Notropis albizonatus
N. leuciodus (S1)
N. sp. “sawfin shiner” (S2)
N. telescopus (S3)
Pimephales notatus
Rhinichthys atratulus
Semotilus atromaculatus

Cyprinodontidae (2):
Fundulus catenatus (S3)
F. olivaceus

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Yesterday We Went Back To Hurricane Creek

My usual crew met up with Nick Sharp and special guest Casper Cox for a more extensive collecting trip along Hurricane Creek in the Walls of Jericho tract in Jackson County, AL. The weather was good, with only a little rain at the very end. Water level was low so we had an optimal opportunity to catch and observe the local fishes. Our main goal was to find more flame chubs (Hemitremia flammea) since we found only one during the Bio Blitz last June 2.

With 7 of us, 2 had to ride in the back of the truck. Casper and Daniel volunteered for that, which was a big commitment since the road in is so rutted and bouncy. Luckily they weren't tossed out, and most of the branches missed them. We stopped at three sites as it turned out, working upstream, ending at the site from last month and wading upstream from there.

The first site was chosen because we could cut across a field in the truck to it. It had slightly turbid water, disappointing Casper since he much prefers to snorkel. The one new species of interest we found there was the sawfin shiner, a still-undescribed Notropis species. Both Casper and I were perplexed at first and then realized what the two individuals were. We also netted a small longear sunfish which we released. As we prepared to leave, I noticed I had a leech on my left ankle; it was somewhat unpleasant to feel the oral disk in my skin. Casper flicked it off in a nice move, and I stopped bleeding in the next 15 minutes.

The second site was not quite a kilometer upstream, again defined by relatively easy access from the road. First we found several young snapping turtles hanging out in a flooded rut on the road. Below is a photo of Casper contemplating one of the snappers:
At this site we upped our species count largely through Casper's snorkeling observations and captures. In particular, Casper found the following new species to our survey in a pool below a small riffle created by a fallen tree: black darter (Etheostoma duryi), rainbow darter (Eth. caeruleum), bluesided darter (Eth. jessiae), blotchside logperch (Percina burtoni), logperch (P. caprodes) and bigeye chub (Hybopsis amblops). We also halfheartedly chased with the net but didn't capture northern studfish (Fundulus catenatus) and blackspotted topminnow (F. olivaceus); all we did was to chase the most visible adults into the lowest edge of a logjam with deep water. And as Casper and I were pulling the seine net upstream towards a rocky bank, a large redeye bass (Ambloplites rupestris) launched itself into the net. Casper kept it for dinner... All of the above 9 species were new to our survey, although it's not suprising that any of them are present in Hurricane Creek. Here's a view of this second site:
Finally, we drove to the end of the access road to the large field that was the HQ for the Bio Blitz in June. We seined the junction of Turkey and Hurricane Creeks looking for more flame chubs and palezone shiners. We didn't find any, though. Netting up and down a 300 meter stretch of stream didn't turn up anything especially interesting, except maybe for the first bluntnose minnows of the day. By the time we turned around and packed up we were probably within a kilometer of the Tennessee line, where Hurricane Creek originates on Tennessee-protected lands.

So, we've now found by capture or observation 24 species. I'm sure that we've missed some, especially Tennessee shiners (Notropis leuciodus) and whatever madtom catfish Noturus species are present. The species we've found include some that are rare in Alabama, like blotchside logperch, redline darters and sawfin shiners. And several species we've found are only found in clean, silt-free water, most notably bigeye chubs, sawfin shiners, flame chubs and blotchside logperch. This all supports my impression of Hurricane Creek as a gem that's worth preserving as other habitat becomes degraded. Casper told me this morning that he visited Estill Fork of the Paint Rock River late yesterday and it's now too turbid for good snorkeling because some clown has been stripping pea gravel out of the stream bed about a kilometer upstream. This is the next stream to the west of Hurricane Creek and illustrates the dangers faced by the remaining clearwater streams in the Tennessee Valley. Apparently the state of Alabama's equivalent of the EPA, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, doesn't think it's wrong or illegal to gouge a streambead for gravel without a permit from what we can tell. You have to take care of what you can.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

ASIH Supports NANFA Proposal To Make The Rainbow Darter The National Fish

NANFA has started a campaign to name the rainbow darter, Etheostoma caeruleum, as the national fish of the United States. We picked up our first group endorsement Sunday evening at the ASIH meeting in New Orleans. As president of NANFA I had submitted our resolution for consideration and endorsement at the ASIH Business Meeting. Since I had to leave Sunday afternoon, Peter Unmack represented NANFA at the Business Meeting and urged ASIH support for the motion. After brief discussion, ASIH voted in favor with a few dissenting votes. Several ASIH Board members apparently felt that the chances are poor for this actually happening, and if it did go forward the idea would be hijacked by "the catfish people" or largemouth bass supporters. Something like this really did happen in Kansas, where a proposal to make the Topeka Shiner the state fish was perverted into naming the channel catfish the state fish. This kind of relentless pressure for lowest common denominator politics is a real threat, but I think we should try. I hope readers are with us!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Back From Making The Scene In New Orleans At The ASIH Meeting

I had forgotten just how hot it is in New Orleans in July. The humidity was so intense that just walking down the street was stupefying; Alabama by comparison is almost temperate! But that's part of the charm of New Orleans, of course, and it provided a good sweaty backdrop for the annual meeting of the ASIH, American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists.

My major goal was to present my 15 minute talk on the reproductive ecology of burrhead and silverstripe shiners in a tight, coherent fashion. I've been a little spooked after the nasty reviews I received for my submitted manuscript. That prompted me to tighten up my analysis, especially through the use of ANCOVA (Analysis of Covariance) as a statistical tool to clarify seasonal trends in gonad growth (see several of my earlier entries). But at 8:15 a.m. Saturday in the Fish Reproduction session I got up and laid it out, and felt that I did it well. At least I didn't get any hostile catcalls during or after. Some people told me afterwards that they liked it, and I'll take that as a positive ego-boosting thing (I don't think they were jiving me...).

Meetings like this serve several functions for the average attendee like me. You get to see friends you usually don't see, and watch some of them progressing through the hierarchy of academia. For instance, Brady Porter at Duquesne University told me he's up for his third-year tenure review this year which I'm sure he'll get through. And you come across new techniques or approaches for your research; mentioning Brady again, he suggested to me a technique for extracting carotenoid pigments from fish that he had used in a 2002 paper ("Egg mimicry and allopaternal care: two mate-attracting tactics by which nesting striped darters [Etheostoma virgatum] males enhance reproductive success", in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 51: 350-359) that would be useful for the scarlet shiner work I've started. So I'm all gassed up and ready to go, and after reading Brady's paper with this technique I think I even understand the details of the chemistry involved (thank God I got a B in Organic Chemistry!).

My wife Ruth was able to join me on this trip which was fun since we both enjoy New Orleans as a unique crazy place. Much of the city is still in ruins, but the French Quarter, Downtown, and Magazine Street are all pretty much intact and functional. It's largely residential neighborhoods that are still blasted. Even though work is available many people can't find affordable places to live. This means that restaurants are often short-handed, as we found out. Don't expect fast service if you visit New Orleans, but most residents are grateful that the tourist/convention business is starting up again.

I also heard from Nick Sharp from the Walls of Jericho today. We've confirmed a trip there this Friday to scout out more flame chubs in Hurricane Creek on the property, and hopefully get some idea of the health and structure of this population. North 'bama still hasn't received much rain and probably won't before then so the creek should be low, making our job easier. I think Casper from Chattanooga is going to meet us too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

We Chased Our First Swimming Copperhead Of The Season

I went out with Jennifer and Christian yesterday to collect more scarlet and striped shiners from Limestone and Swan Creeks. Both creeks were even lower than before as the dry summer goes on. We found some really beautiful alpha male scarlets at Limestone Creek, along with tons of females and subadults. We also snagged some big striped shiners by sweeping the seine through one of the remaining deep channels in the creek. At Swan we were having trouble finding truly alpha male scarlets so we worked further downstream than usual. As we were sizing up one pool, a snake dropped out of a tree into the water and started cavorting about. It was a copperhead about 2/3's of a meter long; it looked surprisingly graceful in the water. Since we really wanted to seine that pool, Jennifer grabbed two sticks and started driving the snake upstream. It actually went quickly and without incident. Jennifer explained that she's been chasing them out of her garage, so they don't unnerve her. Christian looked a lot more reluctant to chase the snake. It didn't do us a whole ot of good, we were able to capture two more good-sized striped shiners out of that run and pool. The good news is that we got almost all of the fish home alive. Hopefully Jennifer can get some good photos of the alpha male scarlets tomorrow. Next, we have to figure out the best way to bleed a scarlet shiner so that we get 50 - 100 microliters of blood for testosterone assay.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Another Trip To Lauderdale County, AL; We Found Flame Chubs And Other Cool Fish (of course!)

We went out yesterday and visited 4 flame chub sites, one in Florence and the other three to the northwest in the Cypress Creek system. The weather was clear and hot again; north 'bama hasn't even gotten an inch of rain in the last month so the creeks were all low, making our job easier.

Above is a close-up shot of our first site, King (Buffler) Spring on the northern edge of the city of Florence. The spring pool is ankle-deep cold water, with miniature volcanoes of water bubbling up through the sand at odd intervals. The property is owned by a consortium of groups including the Audubon Society, protecting it from development; on two sides there is industrial development, up to within about 200 meters of the spring pool. This site has produced hundreds of flame chubs in some collections from the 1970s. We found a flame chub fairly quickly, and also lots of Tuscumbia darters, another imperilled spring fish. Gambusia are also in the spring.

Our next stop was Greenbrier Branch, a tributary to Cypress Creek just to the northeast of the crossroads of Cloverdale. The bridge that gave us access was fairly high, and below it was a pool deep enough for two of my students to dive into. The pool was full of big bass and sunfish and also some log perch. We crossed upstream under the bridge and found the slow run pictured below, which turned out to have large schools of minnows including lots of flame chubs. We caught and kept two adults and a young-of-the-year. The splash in the photo is a rock-skipping competition as we rolled up the seine.

Next we went to a site on Cypress Creek itself. Cypress Creek runs south from Tennessee draining the center of Lauderdale County, and is famous for high fish biodiversity. We went to a site southwest of Cloverdale on County Road 8 which had produced 4 flame chubs in 1974. We were able to drive off the road onto a broad beach of cobble next to the bridge, and only slightly disturbed the family who were sunning and swimming on the upstream side of the bridge. We popped out and started seining just below the bridge. In short order we'd found lots of scarlet shiners, northern studfish, and two species new to us on this project: warpaint shiners (Luxilus coccogenis) and highland shiners (Notropis micropteryx). The warpaints were in full breeding warpaint, with red marks all around the head and colored fins like below:
The male scarlet shiners were in full dudgeon, too:
Here's a photo of one of the highland shiners:
We also caught a redline darter, Etheostoma rufilineatum. The hourglass marking at the base of the caudal fin is unmistakable:
But with all of this, we found no flame chubs. The bridge had been recently rebuilt, and there was a lot of evidence that a large stretch of creek was dug up and generally altered in the process. Cypress Creek is fairly big and fastflowing at this point, which doesn't make this area prime flame chub habitat in the first place although it's preferred by the four species pictured above. A lot of tree stumps can be found along the current creek bed. Here's a shot of the bridge and creek, looking upstream from below the bridge:
As an example of how this creek has been recently altered, here's a close-up of creek bank just across the creek from where the above photo was taken. Notice the water flow and apparent volume; it felt good on a hot summer day:
So, my working hypothesis is that flame chubs don't like the current physical environment around this bridge and aren't found there. They're likely found not too far upstream, which is unaltered, but our sampling protocol is to sample about a 200 meter stretch of creek, so we didn't go much above the bridge.

Finally, our fourth site, nearby Lindsay Creek which is also a Cypress Creek tributary, looked good except for one thing: it was full of cows that had access to the creek both above and below the County Road 15 bridge. Two of my students were distinctly nudgy at the thought of seining in a creek frequented by cows so we didn't sample there. And access would have been difficult, since the only way down to the creek not blocked by barbed wire required dropping down a concrete abutment almost two meters. This site had produced flame chubs twice in 1968 and once in 1974. I suspect that it didn't have cows in it then. So this site won't count yea or nay for flame chubs in my survey, I'll just footnote it with a "wading cows" warning.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

New Data View, New Opinion: Male GSI Data For Burrheads and Silverstripes

After my post last night, I sat down with the GSI data I have for the male fish in my burrhead (Notropis asperifrons) and silverstripe (N. stilbius) shiner study. My prejudice to date has been to focus on the female data, since it would seem that the reproductive condition of female fish would be primarily important; that's where eggs come from! But, treating (with ANCOVA again, for a better allometric view of gonadal growth) and graphing my data on the relative size of male testes, I come to a new realization. Female reproductive effort for both species peaked in April (see the graph in my last post), followed by a summer-long decline in the relative size of ovaries. But the male data, in the graph below, is very different (notice that the GSI values on the left scale are also much smaller than female values). N. stilbius has a major peak in April, with a very low GSI by late July. N. asperifrons has higher GSI values for most of the summer before plummeting in August. Since it takes two to tango, it would seem that N. asperifrons has a somewhat longer reproductive season, into late July, than N. stilbius. This isn't earthshaking but suggests some interesting differences between two related species living in the same Alabama creek. I could be succumbing to my tendency to overinterpret data, but.... I think it's true!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Burrhead And Silverstripe Shiner Data... I Think I Know What It Means.

Besides chasing down flame chubs, I've been working on my burrhead and silverstripe shiner reproductive ecology project. I'll be presenting a talk at the ASIH meeting in New Orleans next weekend, so I've become obsessive with this so I don't say anything stupid in front of other biologists.

The manuscript I submitted to Ecology of Freshwater Fish bounced, largely for good reason. The good news is that I received good suggestions and feedback from one of the three reviewers (the other two spent a lot of time pointing out that this project is of no global significance, and anyway what the hell's my problem for not using Imperial English rather than American English even though their guidelines say to use either). The key suggestion that I've been working with is to analyze my gonadal size relative to body size data using Analysis of Covariance (ANCOVA), which allows an allometric analysis of gonadal growth while controlling for body size. The general convention for this kind of analysis is to use Gonadosomatic Index, or GSI, which states gonadal mass as a fraction of body size. What I've worked on is to restate GSI's for each species, each month of the breeding season, by running my data through ANCOVA. This sharpens and clarifies what kind of changes the fish are going through as spawning season peaks and wanes.

Below is an image from an Excel spreadsheet contrasting female ANCOVA-transformed GSI from March through August for silverstripe (N. stilbius) and burrhead (N. asperifrons) shiners. They follow similar trends, defining a breeding season that peaks in April and has largely waned by late July. This fits in with what's known of most other Notropis species who have 3-4 month spawning seasons, depending on latitude.
Male GSI data don't seem to show a clean trend like with the females above; males have a small spike in April, and almost nothing by the end of July, and very little in August.

The more subtle result of my research comes from microscopically examining histologically stained ovarian tissues. Using a digital microscope I was able to take photographs of 4 random views of ovarian tissue from each female, and using the same software measure the size of each stage of developing oocyte. (Yes, this is work for an obsessive compulsive, I admit it.) What I found is that burrheads produce oocytes that are significantly larger than silverstripe oocytes at almost every developmental stage, almost every month over the spawning season. Also, female burrheads average about 45 mm long and produce ova about 2 mm in diameter, and female silverstripes average about 55 mm long and produce ova about 1.4 mm long. So it seems that burrheads produce larger eggs, and these eggs are usually larger during development.

The one mistake I made in this research was not to count ripe eggs in females as we dissected them. Two undergraduate students working with me did excellent work with the histology, and I didn't lean on them to count eggs. The project started off with one very good graduate student who dropped out of school just as we got started, and I didn't follow up by asking the undergraduates to do a full-fledged Master's research project; I really couldn't. So my story's not as complete as it could be. I would like to conclude that burrheads produce fewer, larger eggs than silverstripes but that's only speculation. But it's a project worth doing again with a larger data set. All I have to do is to find (another) good graduate student(!).

Saturday, July 01, 2006

We Found Lots Of Flame Chubs In Little Cypress Creek Yesterday

We visited 4 historic flame chub sites in Lauderdale County, AL, yesterday along Little Cypress Creek. At each site we caught at least one flame chub. The area is in pretty good shape landuse-wise, so I'm not so surprised. Above is my team standing on the edge of the sweet spot of the day, Olive Spring. The spring is right behind them, a series of water vents forming a pool just off of Little Cypress Creek. In 2 seine sweeps we caught 6 flame chubs, and we could have caught lots more if we'd kept going. This spring was collected 7 times in 1974, yielding hundreds of flame chubs (I still don't know why taking that many was necessary). This stretch of creek, maybe 1.5 km south of the Tennessee border, also has large numbers of scarlet shiners and rosyfin dace all in eyepopping breeding coloration. 300 meters back along the road, a tributary to this system, Dry Branch, was one long spring. Water kept bubbling up through the gravel in a series of low hisses, and formed several deeper pools. We found flame chubs in that stretch, too, which represents 2 of the sites on my master list of 151. We even netted some juvenile flame chubs, a first this season. The other 2 sites we hit, about 5 and 12 km south, respectively, were more of the same. The southernmost site was fairly broad but we found a flame chub up against a bank. In the photo above you'll see Bessie the Bassett, who followed us down the creek. Her owner told us that Bessie just showed up one day, usually hangs around, and eagerly eats. I guess that's the way bassetts are..

Next week we'll hit another creek system in Lauderdale County, maybe Cypress Creek just to the west of Little Cypress. I suspect that we'll find flame chubs there, too. So now my tally is 38 sites visited, and 15 sites have produced flame chubs.