Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: George Burgess, (352) 392-1721, firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- This is no tall fish story. Scientists have identified a new species of bass, making the finned fighter likely the last game fish in North America to get a scientific name, says a University of Florida researcher.
"It's the end of an era in the sense that all the other bass and trout were discovered long ago, mostly in the 1700s and 1800s," said George Burgess, a UF ichthyologist who worked to establish the fish as a separate species. "From now on, scientists likely will describe only the smaller, cryptic species that have avoided detection despite our best efforts."
Burgess and James D. Williams, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey Laboratory in Gainesville, describe the new species of bass, called Micropterus cataractae and found in rivers in Florida, Georgia and Alabama, in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal "The Bulletin of the Florida Museum of Natural History."
The species getting a scientific name has actually been known by anglers for the last 50 years as the shoal bass because it thrives in the shoals of rivers, Burgess said. But no one was certain the fish was different from its closest relative, the spotted bass until Williams and Burgess noted key differences including coloration, absence of teeth on the tongue and number of rows of scales.
"Our research should put to rest any questions about whether it's a valid species or merely a variant of one of the other species," Burgess said. "It's pretty much a slam dunk as far as we're concerned, and the scientific community already is aware of the fish."
As with all wildlife, the first species to be described are the most prominent, generally leaving only small critters and insects to be named, he said.
"When the first biologists trekked across America, expeditiously putting their hooks and nets in the water for the first time and shooting birds out of the sky and mammals out of the hills, the first creatures to be discovered were those that were particularly easy to catch and shoot," Burgess said. "What's exciting about this species is that it's a big fish and probably will be the last sport fish to be described in North American waters."
Scientific identification of the fish is of interest to Florida's huge sport-fishing industry, Burgess said, because it paves the way for conservation efforts to begin.
Shoal bass face many threats including dams, human population sprawl and the introduction of non-native fish species, he said.
"Largemouth bass are the primary species for sport fishing in freshwater here in Florida," he said. "There are numerous bass fishing tournaments that attract thousands of people to the state every year. The shoal bass, being a relative of the largemouth bass, generates significant interest among anglers in Florida as well as Georgia and Alabama."
The shoal bass is much rarer than the largemouth bass because it has a geographically limited range and more particular habitat requirements, Burgess said.
Williams said shoal bass are threatened by habitat loss caused by a series of dams on the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Unlike other bass found in deep reservoirs and rivers, the shoal bass survives only in shoal areas in rivers and large creeks.
Booming population growth around Atlanta is diminishing the quality of the Flint River, another favorite haunt of the shoal bass, he said.
And a potential future problem is whether the shoal bass will face competition for food and habitat as other species of fish are introduced into Southeastern rivers, he said.
"Now that we finally have formal recognition of this new species of bass, we can move forward in carrying out conservation programs and habitat protection programs that we couldn't do in the past without a scientific name or description," Williams said.
Dewitt Galloway, an avid fisherman from Apalachicola who serves on the board of directors of the Florida Bass Federation, said he was not surprised by the news. "I've known about shoal bass for quite awhile," he said. "I've caught some up in the Flint River, where the water is very clear and it's really swift moving in the upper regions."
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