ST. LOUIS (AP) — The discovery of two lab-confirmed tiny pallid sturgeons in the Missouri River near St. Louis offers fresh proof the endangered species descending from the dinosaur era is reproducing, the Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday.
The two larval sturgeons, found by the Missouri Department of Conservation last June, mark the first time the species at such early stages have turned up during samplings of a 811-mile stretch of the Missouri, from the Gavins Point Dam between Nebraska and South Dakota to St. Louis. Genetic testing by Southern Illinois University in Carbondale confirmed the larval fish as pallid sturgeons, meaning "there's some natural reproduction occurring," said Joe Bonneau, the Corps' South Dakota-based chief of threatened and endangered species.
The pallid sturgeon is a cousin of the more-common shovelnose sturgeon and is native to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. It's a bottom-feeding fish that's been listed as a federal endangered species since 1990, spurring conservation and habitat restoration effort. Many of the pallid sturgeons found in the Missouri originated in hatcheries and were transplanted into the river, and offspring in the wild generally have difficulty surviving beyond a year or so.
During sampling efforts, "we catch lots of larval sturgeon and send all those fish to geneticists, and until now they've all come back as shovelnose sturgeon," said Bonneau. "This doesn't mean we've turned a corner and everything will be rosy," but the two larval fish — one 48 millimeters long, the other half that — give biologists something to study.
"It's a big deal as far as telling us about the fight of the pallid sturgeon," he said. "It remains to be seen what it means. But the main point is that just getting those answers becomes a lot more plausible when you just start finding fish."
With looks only a mother could love, today's pallid sturgeons — toothless and with flattened, shovel-shaped snouts that suck up small fish and other food from river bottoms — are descendants of ones that were dominant 70 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. The pallid sturgeon can reach lengths of 6 feet, weigh up to 100 pounds and in some cases live at least 40 years.
Once commercially fished, overharvesting, dam construction and habitat loss have contributed to winnowing their numbers, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which has stocked the Missouri River with 25,000 pallid sturgeon fingerlings since 1992.
"The good news here is this is the first indication that to some degree, the pallid sturgeons are reproducing on their own in this section of the Missouri River," department spokesman Joe Jerek said. "It's just added hope — that first indication that it's possible."