Beautiful Shiner Released into Wildlife Refuge

Arizona Native Fish, Beautiful Shiner, Released into San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge

Juvenile of Cyprinella formosa, beautiful shiner. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Visualize the Sonoran Desert and saguaros, rattlesnakes, and lizards might come to mind. But the region’s waterways contain an amazing aquatic universe! The desert’s native aquatic animals have adaptations allowing them to thrive in a unique environment, and are an essential link in the region’s ecological food chain.

Many of these native fishes are threatened or endangered, facing challenges ranging from drought, habitat loss due to human development, and competition from invasive species. The Desert Museum works with government agencies to provide refugia populations for breeding, introduction, and reintroduction of these fishes to the wild. 

The Museum’s Herpetology, Ichthyology, and Invertebrate Zoology department (HIIZ) has been partnering with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to hold, propagate and release a small, native Rio Yaqui drainage fish called the beautiful shiner. The USFWS gave the Museum over 350 tiny fry in October of 2020 to grow up to a larger size, making these nearly full grown fish ideal for release into wild populations. 

Our awesome HIIZ Keepers have been caring for these fish by feeding them, performing water quality measurements, and maintaining their life support systems, with a goal of releasing the fish in spring 2021. All went as planned, and on May 21st, these beautiful fish were released into Brasher Pond, a man-made pond along the U.S./Mexico border in the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge (SBNWF)! 

These man-made ponds are the only waters in southern Arizona where beautiful shiner (listed as threatened) and other Yaqui fishes, like Yaqui chub (endangered) and Yaqui topminnow (endangered) remain in this particular portion of the Sonoran Desert region today. 

Recent construction along the border has all but stopped, so demand on adjacent aquifers has reduced. The current drought, however, is ever present, so rainwater recharge remains a significant challenge. Nevertheless, some of the wells that fill the refuge’s man-made ponds are powered via natural artesian flow, while others employ solar-powered pumps to accomplish pond water recharge. 

HIIZ Curator Howard Byrne partnered with friend and colleague Cassondra Walker to work on conservation and research projects concerning these and other endangered fish this past year. Cassondra is currently working as a Species Lead within USFWS Tucson Ecological Services and as a Refuge Biologist for the San Bernardino and Leslie Canyon wildlife refuges. Together, Howard and Cassondra spent much of the year trapping, counting, assessing, and releasing fish, as well as performing pond water quality measurements and monitoring well water levels on these two very special wildlife refuges. 

This spring, the pair collected several hundred more beautiful shiner that were housed at the USFWS San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge headquarters, and successfully released them into several man-made ponds serving as ecological refuges for some of the desert’s amazing aquatic animals.  

Because successful conservation work requires the commitment and expertise of varied professionals along every step of the way, it’s not always possible to participate in full-circle conservation projects as an individual. To experience the beginning, middle, and gratifying release of threatened or endangered animals into wild populations is an especially rewarding and fulfilling experience – the proof is in their smiles!  

Cassondra Walker and Howard Byrne cheesin’ over conservation wins!

This project highlights just one way the Museum and its dedicated staff participates in boots-on-the-ground conservation work. In partnership with our community and our brilliant colleagues, we make a difference, once species at a time, for the wildlife of the Sonoran Desert region. 

We are currently holding three of the Yaqui drainage fishes at the Museum. When you visit, look for the Yaqui chub and beautiful shiner on exhibit in the underwater viewing area of the Riparian Corridor! Visit us every day, 7:30 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. You can always support our conservation work by making a tax-deductible donation. 

Written by: Howard Byrne and Elena Makansi 

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