Even though it may be closed to visitors, the Shedd Aquarium has invited new guests to the institution in an effort to further its important conservation efforts this spring. Joining with Tennessee Aquarium earlier this year, Shedd launched a new effort to safeguard the endangered Barrens Topminnow (Fundulus julisia) from extinction. Welcoming six individual fish from the species, Shedd began a head-start program for the fish, listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2019. In the short time since its launch, the effort has already marked an important milestone. Just recently, Shedd observed successful spawning of the Barrens Topminnow. What this means is the aquarium is one step closer to rearing young, which will remain at Shedd until large enough to return to their native habitat in Tennessee, bolstering the shrinking wild populations there.
Reaching the new milestone took a bit of creativity on the part of Shedd staff. In an effort to make the Barrens Topminnow comfortable in their new environment, members of Shedd’s animal care team had to create intricate yarn structures to mimic the heavy vegetation where the fish customarily hide to spawn. The six individuals at Shedd, which will remain behind the scenes, are expected to spawn several times, giving several young tompminnows the opportunity to make the trip to Tennessee to grow the wild populations there.
Even though much of these conservation efforts will take place beyond the public space of the aquarium, Shedd will develop a habitat in the special exhibit, Underwater Beauty, which will connect guests to these beautiful fish and the ongoing head-start effort.
“The topminnows are doing well here at Shedd, and we look forward to applying our expertise with fish spawning and rearing to benefit a vulnerable species in the wild,” said Keoki Burton, supervisor of special exhibits at Shedd Aquarium. “This head-start program is an important effort that hits close to our mission of keeping the aquatic world diverse and healthy.”
The Tennessee Aquarium along with several conservation partners have been working since 2001 to monitor vulnerable topminnow populations and protect a narrowing amount of habit that is critical to the survival of the species. These Tennessee native fish are found in only five locations on the Barrens Plateau.
Aside from habitat degradation, the topminnow population is also being ravaged by the introduction of the invasive western mosquitofish, which not only outcompetes the native fish species but has also been witnessed consuming young Barrens topminnow fry. Head-starting the minnows until they’ve outgrown this juvenile stage gives them a better chance at surviving when they are reintroduced to native waters.
“We are honored to have the Shedd Aquarium join us in our efforts to help preserve and save the Barrens topminnow,” said Matt Hamilton, Curator of Fishes at the Tennessee Aquarium. “Our goal is to not only raise offspring to help with the recovery efforts but to also build an Ark population that safeguards the species in the event of complete extirpation of the Barrens topminnow in the wild. We have nearly two decades of work under our belt. With the conservation efforts of the Tennessee Aquarium and the Barrens Topminnow Work Group, we have released more than 44,000 Barrens topminnows into the natural habitat. It truly has to be community effort to save this fish and the habitat it calls home.”
As you may imagine, current head-start program isn’t the first effort of its kind undertaken by Shedd’s Animal Response Team. The first launched at Shedd in 2018, when the aquarium joined several organizations to raise young Blanding’s turtles – a local species that are considered endangered in the state of Illinois.
The efforts of zoos and aquariums to conserve and protect species does not stop, despite the shutdown. People who would like to support the Shedd Aquarium’s mission and help mitigate its financial impacts on the institution can aid in various ways, including adopting an aquatic animal, making a donation or becoming a member. The public can also show support by donating the value of previously purchased tickets for a visit, group and experience reservations programs and events and more.
Support may also be directed to Tennessee Aquarium as they work to protect endangered species like the Barren’s topminnow by making a donation on their website, tnaqua.org.