Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Tiny Rare Catfish Continues To Elude Biology Team
May 17, 2004
MOSHEIM, Tenn. -- There were numerous salamanders, and the collective weight of the crawfish alone was enough to make the seine net sag.
A male redline darter, resplendent in its spawning colors, drew some interest, as did a small map turtle and a primitive-looking fish called a banded sculpin whose markings matched the creek bottom.
After picking through the haul, the biologists dumped everything back. This seining expedition was after the Chucky madtom, a tiny catfish that ranks among the world's rarest freshwater fish.
Despite repeated attempts over the past decade, scientists have managed to collect only 14 Chucky madtoms. Not only is the fish extremely rare, but so far, it is known to exist only in one stream -- Little Chucky Creek, a tributary of the Nolichucky River.
The Chucky madtom was discovered in 1991 when a Tennessee Valley Authority fisheries biologist collected a pair from Little Chucky Creek.
The last two specimens -- numbers 13 and 14 -- were collected just two weeks ago. Chris Cooper, a biologist with the TVA's Holston/Cherokee/Douglas Watershed Team, said it had been so long since anybody had seen a Chucky madtom that there was some speculation the fish might have gone extinct.
"A lot of people had written it off, but I wasn't buying it," Cooper said.
The pair of Chucky madtoms most recently collected in Little Chucky Creek reside at Conservation Fisheries Inc., a nonprofit organization in Knoxville that propagates rare fish species and releases them to the wild.
Biologists say they need to collect more Chucky madtoms soon to establish a captive breeding population in the event that the localized population in Chucky Creek is wiped out.
The nine-member team that returned to Little Chucky Creek last week included representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Izaak Walton League, the University of Tennessee, Conservation Fisheries and TVA. Their equipment included a 20-foot seine net, two backpack shockers and, most importantly, their feet.
Like any catfish, Chucky madtoms are nocturnal and spend their days beneath rocks. Collecting them is hard work. Last week, while two people held the seine net against the current, the rest used their feet to flip over rocks as two people with backpack shockers -- gasoline-powered generators that temporarily stun the fish -- waded in from behind.
Concentrating on a likely looking habitat, the team worked Little Chucky Creek from morning through the late afternoon. Just to be sure, a number of sections were sampled twice.
Each pass produced a cornucopia of aquatic life, but no Chucky madtoms. Pat Rakes, with Conservation Fisheries, said there will be future collecting efforts, and that it's important to collect more Chucky madtoms even if it means temporarily removing them from their natural habitat.
"If they are so rare that removing a few individuals is going to tip them toward extinction, then we need to get half a dozen and make an ark out of them, because they're probably going to be extinct anyway," Rakes said.
The Chucky madtom likes shallow, gently flowing streams where slab rocks rest on clean-swept pea gravel. Little Chucky Creek supplies that habitat, but like most modern streams that flow through pasture, it suffers from sediment produced by agricultural runoff.
He said the recent rediscovery of the Chucky madtom is expected to catalyze a cooperative effort among state and federal agencies and private landowners to reduce erosion by building livestock exclusion fences and vegetative buffer zones along the stream.
"We can get these fish in captivity and propagate them, but if they can't survive after they're released, what good does that do?" Cooper said.
Watching the seining activity from the vantage point of the creek bank was 60-year-old Steve Solomon, a local landowner. A retired electrician, Solomon said he understood the backpack shockers but didn't know much about the Chucky madtom until the biologists got his permission to access the creek through his farm.
"They have my blessing," Solomon said. "I've lived here all my life and never heard about this catfish. It has to live somewhere, and I'm proud it's here."