Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Holy Grail for Fish Biologists?

Here is the quote buried in a long article:  "For biologists, this is like the holy grail."  It's not often we hear such hyperbole from a fish biologist.  Yet this quote came from a well-respected professional, Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Glacier Park field office.  Muhlfeld is the lead author of the study by a slate of Montana researchers recently published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.

So what's this Holy Grail all about? Think "otolith."  The otolith is fish biology nomenclature for a fish's earbone.  Muhlfeld and his collaborators say they can determine virtually the entire geographical wanderings of a fish during its entire life cycle by decoding the creatures otolith.  Their study concerns the westslope cutthroat trout in the Flathead River system.  You can click here to read the entire study as it appears in the Canadian Journal.

We learned of this new Holy Grail via a circuitous route through a virtual magazine published by the National Fish Habitat Partnership.  (Click here to access that publication.)  The article they cited was published May 2, 2012 in Missoula's "Missoulian" newspaper.  Here's the link for that article.  It was in this newspaper article that we found the "holy grail" quote.

So how is the Holy Grail otolith research relevant to The Salmon River?  Simple: Think bull trout.  Huge gobs of money are spent each year studying bull trout, a fish which likes to travel hither and yon in the Salmon watershed without ever getting too far from home.

My wife and I spent four summers in the headwaters of the East Fork of The Salmon River tending to Bowery Guard Station and the big hot springs next door.  During those four summers we met more fisheries biologists than we can possibly count or remember.  Most of them were studying the bull trout life cycle and their curious migration patterns.

It was common for us see a stranger walking along the bank of the East Fork.  We'd nod and say, "Ah, another fish guy (or gal).  Sure enough, we'd strike up a conversation with the newcomers and determine what it was they were attempting to study.  Almost invariably, we'd say to them, "Gee, there was a fish guy (or gal) walking here two days ago studying the same thing."  And almost invariably, they would look shocked and explain, "They WERE?"

All manner of low and high tech methods were deployed and employed in the seemingly never-ending quest to document the comings and goings of the elusive bull trout.  Some researchers chased them around with ET-style radio antennas.  Others merely lurked in the streamside riparian zone.  We enjoyed their perennial antics and liked to joke that the peril of the bull trout represented "full employment for fish biologists."

So, along comes this new Holy Grail for fish biologists.  We can imagine all the exclamations of glee echoing forth from the offices of fish biologists who study the bull trout.  Ah, HA!  Finally, a way to obtain a definitive determination about that vagabond fish, the Salmon River bull trout!

It will be VERY interesting to see if the new findings about the otolith make their way out into the field season when once again legions of fish biologists begin to prowl the banks of The Salmon River and its tributaries.  Ah, The Holy Grail of biologists!

PS--We printed the Missoulian article to PDF and saved it for permanent posterity to our Google Docs file.  It's not often the words "holy grail" appear in a fish biologists lexicon.  Priceless stuff.  Here's the Doc link:


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