In an aquarium at the Arboretum in Flagstaff, Arizona, my daughter and I saw speckled dace and Little Colorado spinedace fish swimming together in an aquarium. They were the colors of the desert condensed, each fish only around eight centimeters long, yellow and brown with pebbly speckles. I thought how wonderful it would be to rest on some boulders and look out over a stream and see these fish. I later found out that there are efforts to protect these fish, the threatened Little Colorado spinedace, in particular.
The Little Colorado spinedace lives only in north-flowing tributaries of the Little Colorado River in eastern Arizona-- specifically, Apache, Navajo and Coconino counties. This area surrounds the towns of Holbrook and Winslow, sites of unusual painted-desert land and an ancient meteor crater. Much of the land around the streams is contained in the Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, which gives some hope for efforts to protect the species.
The Little Colorado spinedace seeks pools with some currents, especially those pools formed from undercut banks and boulders. Sometimes it seeks out areas full of white water buttercups. The speckled dace likes areas deeply-shaded by trees that seek out limited water in high-desert habitats. It also prefers currents and waves whether in streams, lakes, or rivers. The two fish often inhabit the same streams, but the speckled dace has a much wider range from Sonora to Canada.
The sediment material lining the bottom of the streams seems to be important for the survival of the Little Colorado spinedace, and research by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is underway to determine the specifics.
Both types of fish hunt aquatic insects that skim over the surface or dive down into the roots of water plants.
Saving the threatened Little Colorado spinedace involves finding and protecting existing populations, re-introducing the fish in appropriate habitats, and creating refuges. The key in all three of these strategies is to understand the characteristics of habitat where the fish can take refuge and thrive. Scientists are specifically studying competition and predation by non-native fishes, impact of dam construction on currents, and changes in sedimentation caused by logging, road-building, and agriculture.
At a refuge created for Little Colorado spinedace fish at the Arboretum at Flagstaff, I could see for myself what habitat characteristics provide the best environment for the spinedace. From interpretive signs, I learned that too many pond grasses can stop the wind from making currents in the water. The water then starts to stagnate in layers, with the topmost layers becoming too hot. I never realized that water grasses could cause a problem for fish. However, a good aspect seemed to be the protection of the refuge pond from run-off.
Another positive aspect of the habitat seemed to be the variety and number of aquatic insects. I saw water striders skimming the surface and water boatmen plunging to the bottom of the shallow pond edges.
Small stream fish, like the little Colorado spinedace and the speckled dace, show those who lean over the banks that a stream is not alive just through its tumbling current, but it is also alive from the creatures that live there.
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