Monday, June 1, 2009

Web Site Offers First Complete Look at Georgia's Freshwater Fishes

This is no fish tale: A new Georgia Museum of Natural History Web site offers the most complete look at Georgia fishes, what they are and where they’re found.

“There has never been anything this comprehensive,” said Brett Albanese, a senior aquatic zoologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Fishes of Georgia is the work of Albanese, Museum of Natural History Director Bud Freeman and Carrie Straight, a research professional with the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology. The Web site at http://fishesofgeorgia.uga.edu/ went online in March. Behind the lists, photographs and distribution maps are thousands of hours spent studying records, sampling streams and inspecting fish preserved in jars.

Results include a Fishes of Georgia Atlas database that features more than 159,000 fish records from 19,028 collections, and an easy-to-use Web site that documents the state’s deep lineup of freshwater fish. A 1997 publication reported 219 native freshwater fishes for Georgia. Through the atlas project, that total now stands at 265, placing Georgia among the top three U.S. states for freshwater fish diversity.

Environmental consultants, city planners, conservationists and elementary school teachers are all expected to use the site. Species are listed by scientific and common names. Maps show where each fish lives by basin. (Drainage systems often have different fishes.) A tab allows viewers to submit new records.

There are surprises. Twenty-one species listed have not been formally described – or recognized as new species – although many such as the sicklefin redhorse are well known to ichthyologists like Freeman and Albanese. These fish illustrate what is called cryptic, or hidden, diversity.

Factors contributing to a fish species being undiscovered vary, Freeman said. “They may be in hard to sample places. They may look exactly the same, at first glance. They may be different only genetically.”

Anglers who log in will find more bass than expected. The site lists Bartram’s bass, an undescribed species in the Savannah River basin, and splits redeye bass into a species in the Chattahoochee and Flint River basins and another in the Ocmulgee, Oconee and Ogeechee basins, based on research Freeman spearheaded.

The number of state or federally protected fish – 57 – will raise eyebrows. And at least six species are no longer found in Georgia. Conserving the remaining fishes will require watershed-level measures such as protecting streamside forests, preserving natural areas, and managing better the run-off from urban and rural land uses.

The hope is that Fishes of Georgia informs and educates. Straight modeled the site after the museum’s Georgia Wildlife Web, a popular guide to wildlife. She also avoided flashy features that bank on faster Internet connections. “We tried to accommodate as broad a spectrum of users as we could,” Straight said.

She is still adding maps and photographs. Plans include new search functions. Scientists’ comments also will likely change the information, which includes common coastal fishes and 23 non-native species.

The project was funded by the museum, which is part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences at UGA, Georgia DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section and a State Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fishes of Georgia Atlas was a priority in Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.

The atlas is a significant component of a larger effort to publish a comprehensive book on the state’s fish fauna. Next steps include the development of taxonomic keys and species accounts, a challenge given the number of species involved. Keeping the atlas up-to-date as new information becomes available is also a high priority for the authors.

Each expects the database and Web site to spur more research and understanding of Georgia fishes.



FISHES OF GEORGIA by the numbers

** Web site features 337 species.

** 284 species occur primarily in freshwater or enter freshwater for feeding or breeding.

** 265 of the freshwater species are considered native to Georgia.

** 23 species are introduced or non-native to the state.

** At least six species are extirpated or extinct from Georgia waters.

** 57 are state protected; eight of these are also protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

** 21 have not been formally described by scientists, including some long-recognized species like the sicklefin redhorse and others like a separate species of redeye bass more recently discovered.

** Online: http://fishesofgeorgia.uga.edu/

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