From the Desk of Dan Ashe

How a Recovery Conservation Program is Protecting this Rare Species of Minnow

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PHOTO CAPTION: Rescued laurel dace awaiting transport back to Chattanooga. (Image: Tennessee Aquarium)

Guest blog by AZA Staff.

Endangered Species Profile: The Laurel Dace

Unless you’re an avid fisherman who has ventured into streams along the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee, chances are you’ve never encountered a laurel dace. 

The small species of minnow is native to a handful of small streams that feed into the Tennessee River. Most laurel dace can be found in the underlying layers beneath the surface of the water, in cracks and crevices of rocks, and in gravel beds at the bottom of streams. 

Unfortunately, the laurel dace population is declining at an alarming rate. In 2012, laurel dace inhabited five known streams; yet just seven years later, there are only two remaining streams known to have laurel dace. In 2011, the laurel dace was added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 

READ MORE: What is an Endangered Species?

Why are laurel dace endangered?

The three main threats contributing to the decline of laurel dace populations are the result of human activity. A combination of water pollution, the introduction of non-native fish species, and extreme droughts have caused a significant decline in a number of local species, but the laurel dace have been significantly impacted.

“When most people think of extinction, they think of the big mammals in Africa,” said Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, science program manager at the Tennessee Aquarium. “They think of the tropical rainforest in the Amazon, but we have an underwater rainforest right here in our backyards in the Southeast, and a lot of those aquatic animals are on the brink of extinction, including the laurel dace.”

Threat #1: Water Pollution

When runoff from nearby agricultural fields and dirt pollution seep into streams along the Cumberland Plateau, the delicate balance of nutrients and minerals in the water is affected. 

“Silt accumulates and settles among the substrate where laurel dace lay their eggs, suffocating them and wiping out new generations,” said reintroduction biologist Meredith Harris. 

Threat #2: The Introduction of Non-Native Species

One of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of nature is the delicate balance between species. When human intervention disrupts this balance, it can have reverberating impacts on not only the local habitat but also regional areas, for years to come. The introduction of invasive species or the loss of a native species can have detrimental effects.

Threat #3: Extreme Drought

Two extreme droughts in the Southeastern United States have also contributed to the decline in the laurel dace population. From what we know about laurel dace, it would appear they prefer cool currents of swift-moving water. Extreme droughts are not conducive to this type of environment, and as a result, laurel dace are unable to spawn.

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The Future of the Laurel Dace

Despite the alarming rate at which populations of laurel dace are declining, efforts are being made to propagate them in captivity which can help recover the species. Reintroduction biologist Meredith Harris, along with Dr. Kuhajda and other researchers at The Tennessee Aquarium, have successfully spawned larval laurel dace, which will allow scientists to understand how to care for the endangered species to help prevent extinction.

“In order to have an idea on how to recover an endangered species, you need to know something about their life history,” Kuhajda said. “You need to know what they eat, how long they live, how many eggs they lay. To do this, you either need to preserve specimens and study them or bring them in and study them in an aquarium, and that’s what we did with the laurel dace.”

In 2017, laurel dace were brought to The Conservation Institute at The Tennessee Aquarium, and more than 300 new individuals were spawned. Later, in 2019, more than 450 larvae were spawned. As researchers observe and learn more about the laurel dace, they’ll be better able to understand what efforts are needed to ensure species survival. 

What can you do to help?

There are a number of ways the average person can help protect the laurel dace from extinction. 

1. Support AZA and Our SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction Programs

AZA and a number of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums work to protect several endangered species. You can share AZA news on conservation programs using the hashtag #SavingSpecies to increase awareness of conservation efforts. If you’re passionate about animal welfare, and conservation, don’t be afraid to speak up and share what you know. 

The more people are aware of the number of species facing extinction, the more they can take steps themselves to help protect them. AZA’s online Press Room features news and updates you can share on social, via email and word of mouth to help spread the word about the importance of animal conservation and research.

2. Support AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums

Supporting accredited zoos and aquariums who invest in research and conservation efforts can help ensure the survival of endangered species. Reintroduction programs and other species survival efforts such as the laurel dace conservation program at The Tennessee Aquarium are the result of researchers working with accredited zoos and aquariums across the world to study behaviors, determine how many individuals remain in the wild, and finding ways to promote species survival. 


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