Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Call for 2012 TNACI Intern Applications!

Interns will help with restoration work
at Colvard Springs on the Conasauga River.
It’s that time of year again when TNACI is looking for the few, the brave, the interns! The students will work at least 10 weeks with our staff, primarily working with the Lake Sturgeon reintroduction project by assisting us with the acquisition, feeding, cleaning, and eventually releasing the 2012 year class. In addition to husbandry work, they will spend time in the field helping with spring restoration projects, snorkeling, collecting fish, surveying and learning to use underwater photography equipment.
Baby Lake Sturgeon! They are very small at the beginning of the summer
and the primary responsibility of our interns is to help them grow up.
Throughout the course of the summer, each intern will develop their own research project related to Lake Sturgeon or other imperiled southeastern freshwater fish. Sarah Candler, a 2011 intern, told us, “My favorite part of interning with TNACI was the variety of experiences I got to have. By working with fish in an aquarium setting and also in the field, I learned alot of new things.” This program offers no shortage of opportunities for students to gain skills and knowledge to help them develop into the fishheads of tomorrow!

Sarah (2011) holding a Lake Sturgeon that was collected
during the annual survey. This fish was from the 2008
year class.
This is not an internship for the desk jockey. We like to get our interns in the water and their hands dirty, and we want students who really enjoy that sort of thing. “The hands-on learning was my favorite part of the internship. I learn best by doing so it was right up my alley.” (Evan Collins, 2009 intern). Check our website for more details and the application. All forms are due by March 15, 2012, and offers will be made by March 30, 2012.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On a mission for the Barrens Topminnow

Matt (TNAQUA) and Ashford (TNACI) pulling a seine net.
As many of you probably know, the Tennessee Aquarium is part of the Barrens Topminnow Working Group (BTMWG), in partnership with U.S. Fish& Wildlife Service, Conservation Fisheries, Inc., TennesseeTechnological University and Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. Through the work of the BTMWG and cooperative landowners, the range of Barrens Topminnows has been expanded, and the species has not been listed as federally endangered. Our primary focus at the Aquarium has been to generate babies to be released back into the wild, but each winter we get to be a part of the monitoring as well. Every year the BTMWG surveys as many of the ~30 populations as possible to check on the health of that group. There are three basic types of populations: 1) wild populations that have never received fish from the captive propagation program 2) populations where past reintroduction efforts have been successful, and we now see wild reproduction and 3) sites where reintroduced fish are still struggling. The information we gather during these surveys allows us to make better decisions about what leads to a successful reintroduction and what work to do next.

Kathlina (TNACI), Pat (CFI), Brad, James and John (USFWS)
pulling a seine at Pond Springs.

Every BTM is measured and their lengths recorded as an
indicator of how many year classes are living at each site.
This lets us know if they are successfully reproducing.
On January 25th and February 2nd the BTMWG convened in middle Tennessee and got to work. We sampled six sites over the course of the two days using seines and dip nets. Every topminnow that is collected is measured for total length, and 10 from each site are fin clipped for genetic analysis. We were able to have good conversations with several land owners and found lots of Barrens Topminnows too! This project is only possible through the cooperation of landowners so communicating with them is vital. Most of them enjoy seeing the science in action as well, so it is fun for everyone. Of course, in addition to the topminnows, several sites are overloaded with Western Mosquitofish. This invasive species is one other of the worst threats to Barrens Topminnows so we also quantify their density at each site as an indicator of site health.
Matt (TNAQUA), Pat and Rebeckah (CFI)
sort through the fish and debris collected
while seining.

This site is the type locality site and has no mosquitofish
to pester the Barrens Topminnows. Brood stock are
collected each year from here.
The last thing that we are able to accomplish during these site visits each year is the collection of brood stock for the following breeding season. Both CFI and the Tennessee Aquarium have to make sure that their breeding stock is healthy, not too old and that they have the proper sex ratios to get optimal genetic diversity as well as production numbers. Breeding tanks are usually stocked with 2 males and 3 females and the fish are swapped around every couple of weeks. This process is tedious and rearing the babies is very time consuming but the efforts pay off in the end. Since 2001, well over 16,000 Barrens Topminnow have been released into the wild! 

Brood stock collected for the Tennessee Aquarium.

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!