AgriLife Research studies identify shiner, minnow populations as early sign of dry, wet conditions

Shiners in the streams could serve as canaries in a coal mine for tracking water availability and planning for future droughts, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research scientist.

The Shoal chub is a widely distributed small fish species being studied as part for a Texas Water Development Board project to help identify flow regulation in the state to benefit water users while maintaining a sound ecological environment. The Shoal chub is listed by the state of Texas as an imperiled species. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo provided by Kevin Conway)

Joshuah Perkin, Ph.D., fish ecologist in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, has been focusing on how small fish species react to disruptions to water flow in creeks, streams and rivers.

Perkin said these fishes’ sensitivity to change and their populations’ success or failure in streams are good indicators of how groundwater depletion or drought are impacting freshwater ecosystems. The rise and fall of these fish populations are also a good prognosticator for how these changes could impact humans.

Small fish like shiners and minnows could represent an important early warning signal for policy makers as long-term weather projections predict increased variability, he said. This could include extended periods of drought due to climate change, Perkin said. But the small fish are also an important link between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

“Small shiners tell us so much about water quality and quantity,” he said. “Much like canaries’ sensitivity to low oxygen levels warned miners, these small fish species raise red flags regarding water shortages and contaminants. Their sensitivity can give us an idea about what to expect when it comes to water rarity and quality as environments are altered or conditions change.”

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