Avoiding predators is always challenging, but it’s even harder in human altered landscapes where the escape routes may not be as plentiful as they used to.
Evading large predatory fish in highly disrupted waters is just one of the many challenges faced by the Topeka Shiner, a small, freshwater minnow that lives in prairie streams throughout the Mississippi River basin. This endangered species must also contend with both native and introduced predators, including the largemouth bass, a species favored by anglers.
The Topeka Shiner’s natural habitats have been significantly altered by human activities. Much of the area once covered by Kansas’s historic prairies has been converted to agricultural lands, and many landowners have dammed or dug out areas of stream to create small agricultural ponds. These ponds change and disrupt the habitats of freshwater fish, as do road crossings.
Lindsey Bruckerhoff, a graduate student in Biology at Kansas State University, wants to know how predators, agricultural ponds, and road crossings affect populations of this endangered species. The goal of her current work is to determine what factors predict the distribution of Topeka Shiners within Kansas freshwater streams. This information can help to inform conservation efforts and prevent further population loss.
Through her research, Lindsey hopes to untangle the impact of human activities and predation on Topeka Shiners. She hypothesizes that streams with large numbers of ponds will have more predators than those without, creating a more treacherous environment for the endangered Topeka Shiner and other small fishes. As a result, Lindsey expects to find fewer Topeka Shiners, and fewer types of fish overall, in streams with more predators and more ponds, and more in streams without these hazards. She will test this hypothesis by comparing fish communities (all of the species of fish that are found together in one area) in different streams with different numbers of ponds and measuring changes in land use across the Flint Hills.
As she designs and carries out her project, Lindsey herself must also confront the complex challenges of working within a human dominated landscape. Many of the streams she needs to sample are on privately owned land, requiring Lindsey to work with community members to complete her research. Although some people feel strongly about protecting endangered species, others are concerned that stringent conservation practices will threaten their livelihood as farmers or their ability to stock sport fish, and may be reluctant to hear about the harmful effects of popular gamefish, like the largemouth bass, on the Topeka Shiner.
Lindsey is committed to developing the best methods to collaborate with landowners to achieve her research goals and further efforts to protect the endangered Topeka Shiner. In her research thus far, most landowners have been engaged and supportive, both excited to be helping Lindsey with her research, and proud of the diversity of fishes present in their own backyards.
This post was written by Sam Sharpe. Sam graduated from Carleton College in 2014 and is currently a PhD student studying drought response variation across species, populations, and life stages of prairie grass. She is passionate about science communication, creating diverse and inclusive learning communities, and running long distances.