Genetic techniques turn up new species – and help conservation

The discovery of a small fish in Montana and Idaho may have big implications.

  • Illustration of the cedar sculpin, Cottus schitsuumsh, a newly identified species of sculpin.

    USDA Forest Service, Zootaxa 3755 (3) © 2014 Magnolia Press
  • Dorsal, lateral and ventral views of a male cedar sculpin, Cottus schitsuumsh, from West Fork Steamboat Creek, Shoshone County, Idaho. The new species is found only in parts of the Columbia River Basin.

    Zachary Randall, USDA Forest Service
  • Details of the cedar sculpin, left and top, and shorthead sculpin. At left, preopercular bone; at right, the narrow area where the tail attaches.

    USDA Forest Service, Zootaxa 3755 (3) © 2014 Magnolia Press
 

One day last summer, Michael LeMoine, a Ph.D. candidate in fisheries biology at the University of Montana, carried a nondescript cardboard box into the Missoula FedEx office. Inside it was a jar of ethanol containing a single specimen of a new species of sculpin.

The woman at the counter asked LeMoine for the value of the contents. He hesitated, considering. "My trouble, ma'am," he remembers answering, "is that you don't know this, but this is a new species in this box, and I really have no idea what the value of it is."

So LeMoine hazarded $10,000, an amount that didn't include the value of the months of field and lab work it took to identify the fish. Nor could he begin to answer the unspoken philosophical question: What is the value of a species?

FedEx charged $5 to insure the package.

"Five bucks to insure a new species," LeMoine says. "If only that would work in the real world."

In January, Zootaxa, a taxonomy journal, published LeMoine and his colleagues' description of the cedar sculpin, or Cottus schitsuumsh, which   is   found  in parts of the upper Columbia River Basin in Montana and Idaho. Of the hundreds of sculpin species around the world, several are abundant in the cold freshwaters of the Pacific Northwest, where they are tasty prey for salmon and trout and play a crucial role in stream ecology. They're strangely colored, odd little bottom-feeders with unflattering names like "slimy" and "spoonhead." LeMoine describes them as "a frog head connected to a slug with some fins on it."

The problem is that all sculpins look alike, to such a degree that biologists consider them one of the most difficult groups of freshwater fish to identify. LeMoine and his colleagues identified the cedar sculpin by scanning a short sequence of its DNA. In doing so, they demonstrated how this decade-old taxonomic tool, known as DNA barcoding, can help biologists discover new fish species – or distinct populations – within what was thought to be a single, undifferentiated species. The researchers, among the West's pioneers in the fast-growing field of conservation genetics, in which genetics is applied to conservation biology, have already shown that there are probably even more new sculpin species out there – along with who knows what else.

By applying genetic techniques to fish and amphibians, says Michael Young, a co-author of the paper, "it's quite likely that we'd encounter something that's extraordinarily rare." In the process, they could identify new species that are already on the brink of extinction, thereby joining discovery and preservation.

Young, a fisheries biologist at the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, led the team that discovered the new sculpin. He describes his research as "quantifying biodiversity," mapping all the fish and amphibians in the Rocky Mountain West's river basins. Doing this, he says, will set a benchmark, a standard of comparison for monitoring the future effects of climate change on species. It's an ambitious effort that involves gathering thousands of samples over vast landscapes.

Young and his colleagues started with sculpins because they presented a "target of opportunity" – since they're hard to distinguish with the naked eye, distinct species have probably been lumped together. Between 2008 and 2011, Young's team collected sculpins from 398 streams in northern Idaho and western Montana. DNA barcoding revealed that as many as eight could be genetically distinct, as-yet-unnamed species.

The most distinct, it appeared, was a sculpin found in Idaho's Coeur d'Alene and St. Joe rivers and a couple of Clark Fork tributaries west of Missoula. But a unique gene sequence alone does not establish a new species; it must be combined with unique morphology. Young tasked LeMoine, his student, with finding those physical differences, however slight. The assignment was made more difficult by the sorry state of the region's natural history archives, which offered few specimens for comparison.

Ultimately, Don Zaroban, the curator of fishes at the College of Idaho's Museum of Natural History, helped LeMoine uncover a key distinction: The species that would eventually be named Cottus schitsuumsh has a single, small, skin-covered protrusion on its preopercular bone, located between the cheek and gill cover, whereas all other sculpin in the region have two. The difference is visible only through dissection.

Young and fellow researchers are now applying DNA barcoding to other fish, such as the westslope cutthroat trout, Montana's state fish. Despite the threat of habitat loss and hybridization with rainbow and Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to protect the westslope cutthroat under the Endangered Species Act. By collecting specimens from across the species' entire range and analyzing their DNA, Young's team could very well find evidence of a new trout species or at least genetically distinct populations. Either would bolster the scientific argument for listing, since divided populations result in smaller and more vulnerable ones.

Once the trout's genetics are understood, Young says, it may be possible to help it cope with climate change. Genetically unique stocks of the fish would have different evolutionary histories; some may have been selected for dealing with warmer climates. "If we want to move some fish," he says, "those might be really good ones to move because they're likely to be more resilient to climate change than other forms that only deal with really cold environments."

Genetic sleuthing offers intriguing possibilities, but also underscores how much remains to be discovered. As freshwater biodiversity continues to decline, we're losing species we've never even named.

This reporting was supported by Science Source, a project of the University of Montana School of Journalism.

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.