River Museum gives 4-inch fish a fighting chance

Dubuque, Iowa – The Barrens Topminnow is facing a “one, two punch” in its fight for survival, as the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium joins its corner to go the distance in a hopeful comeback.

The rise of invasive species to the Mississippi River Watershed and habitat destruction due to land use are among the threats that led to the Barrens Topminnow’s introduction to the List of Threatened and Endangered Species in October of this year. Found exclusively in a couple small tributaries of the Tennessee River, the Barrens Topminnow’s decline inspired the Tennessee Aquarium to spearhead a Candidate Program under the Freshwater Fishes Taxon Advisory Group in 2018, which includes survival, breeding, and reintroduction plans for the fish. Through the support of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (River Museum) was onboarded to the project in early 2019, entering its inaugural year of breeding efforts.

“We look forward to being part of anything that further helps endangered species, even if it’s something as small and inconspicuous as the Barrens Topminnow,” said Mikaela Foust, Assistant Curator of Living Collections at the River Museum. “Even the smallest species are critical for holding together an environment.”

Currently in the River Museum’s Conservation Lab, a Barrens Topminnow male and female dart around an aquarium fashioned for breeding. The temperature-controlled aquarium houses faux vegetation and mops, “which is a fancy term for yarn wrapped around a wine cork,” explained Foust. “The mops are not beautiful, but the Barrens Topminnow will usually lay eggs in highly vegetative areas. They will recognize the mops as vegetation they’d find in their native streams,” she continued.

With the controlled breeding factors in place, all Foust and her fellow keepers can do now is observe, log behaviors, and wait hopefully. “During our morning rounds, we’ll stand, drink our coffee, and watch them have their courtship dances. We’re hopeful in having a successful breeding year,” Foust reflected.

If successful, the River Museum will keep a portion of the Barrens Topminnow population for future breeding efforts and send the other portion to the Tennessee Aquarium, where they’ll be reintroduced to targeted locations in the wild. The collaboration between the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the Tennessee Aquarium, and the AZA community proves that the efforts of reviving the Barrens Topminnow population is not a loss. It is not time to throw in the towel on the survival of this species. The 4-inch Barrens Topminnow may be small, but it is as mighty as our rivers’ currents.

The Barrens Topminnow on-site at the River Museum is on loan from the Tennessee Aquarium. These fish are managed through a Candidate Program under the Freshwater Fishes Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos & Aquarium. When able, the Tennessee Aquarium hopes to upgrade the program to a Species Survival Plan.

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