Posted by: Green Knight | November 2, 2012

Indicator Species

There’s trouble in southeast Missouri over a rare cave fish. As usual, lines are drawn politically and ideologically, as if the fish care about those issues. What’s an “indicator species,” you might ask? Well, biologists and we paleontologists use the term to describe odd things happening in Nature, past & present. Why was there an explosion of life forms at the end of the Precambrian? (the evolution of vision; read Andrew Parker’s “In the Blink of an Eye” sometime.) Why did flowering plants appear and almost take over? Why were there mass extinctions, and why did some survive and some not? It’s a detective story, all tied to various environmental clues. In more recent history, we KNOW why the dodo and the Tasmanian wolf/tiger and the passenger pigeon are gone, and why we almost lost the bald eagle — the symbol of the USA — and the osprey. It’s like an indicator light on your dashboard, letting you know your car is about to blow up.

Why are coyotes doing relatively well near human habitations when other predators are vanishing? (My theory is that we could easily just domesticate them into dogs, as we did with wolves tens of thousands of years ago; it’s just a second wave, with the coyotes ready to be tamed. But with all the horribly mistreated dogs in human society, I hope it doesn’t happen. They deserve better.)

It’s generally considered that life on Earth underwent five major mass-extinction events, and that we’re now undergoing the sixth and possibly the worst. Remember my past posts about bats, bees, amphibians, and birds. They are indicators that our environment is in a major and catastrophic upheaval, this time mostly due to human influence. Like a canary in a mine shaft in the old days, they “indicate” that there’s trouble brewing. So a lowly, slightly venomous and mostly blind underground fish might be an indicator that we need to change our habits. Continue reading for the links that will explain the “controversy” over the Grotto sculpin, Cottus carolinae, and why it’s important. A couple of introductory articles are here:

The US Fish & Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this through late November, and I strongly suggest that you submit one. The docket number is FWS–R3–ES–2012–0065. Go to  and enter that number to do so. Thanks! People are trying to say the usual crap about it not really being a separate species, but “The small, pale, nearly-blind grotto sculpin may be the only population specially adapted to living in subterranean streams.”

here’s MY public comment, just submitted:

I strongly support listing the Grotto sculpin under the ESA. If you read the article and comments in the Southeast Missourian, at, you’ll see the typical reaction about “property values.” That’s all some of these people care about.

One of my mentors was the late Dr. George W. Moore, at one time president of the National Speleological Society, and I studied speleology as part of my degree in earth sciences. I know how fragile a cave ecosystem can be, and have done a fair amount of caving myself. People fail to realize that bats, cave fish, and others, serve as important indicator species, and are worth something in and of themselves.

I also majored in archaeology for a time, and have friends who specialize in cave archaeology. That’s another situation, where historical/cultural resources in this case, can be irreparably damaged by unthinking or malicious people. Those who have cave entrances, sinkholes, or other inlets on their private properties sometimes try to protect them, but often don’t care, or will purposely make things worse as their stand against “the government.” This is a real danger, knowing the Perry County mindset as I unfortunately do.

I was a hazardous/solid waste inspector with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and one of my jobs was to stop people from dumping trash in sinkholes. State law allows for interference with “private property rights” if the landowner is causing an environmental nuisance by impacting neighboring properties, and even individuals are subject to Superfund and FIFRA laws.

I made full use of that, and I urge you to work with the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources as well as the Dept. of Conservation on cave issues. I had to write up one big old farmer who said, “my daddy dumped all his trash in the sinkhole, so why can’t I?” My definition of living history isn’t that flexible.

Actually, the farmer said that his granddaddy did it before him as well. I just didn’t have enough characters left in the window to put it in there.  A Facebook friend on a conservation page responded to my posting of the initial article by saying, “I always ask “who created the endangered species”.. a good fundamentalist Christian answers “God”…and I ask… “You know better than God what should live?” that sometimes gives them pause…”

Well said, Burr Williams! [a founder of the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas.]


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