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Heartland Outdoors

Study documents sturgeon behavior

Wed, November 15, 2017


photo credit:©Shedd Aquarium/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

CHICAGO – A newly published study of a threatened population of lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) revealed behavior patterns that could inform conservation policies to further protect the species. The study, led by Shedd Aquarium in partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), confirmed that wild, adult lake sturgeon are nocturnally active in the Great Lakes Basin. Published online in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, the study uses new techniques to investigate lake sturgeon life history.

The study focused on a rebounding population of lake sturgeon in the Niagara River. Shedd veterinarians and researchers, as well as scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tagged adult fish with pop-up archival satellite tags (PSAT). These tags gathered data on the depth, temperature and acceleration of each fish.

“This was the first time our teams used PSAT, a technology generally deployed on marine animals and rarely, if ever, used in a freshwater ecosystem,” said Dr. Andy Kough, research biologist at Shedd Aquarium. “We learned much about what works and does not work using this tracking technology in a novel environment, and recovered some useful ecological data along the way.”

The study’s results suggest that adult lake sturgeon are more active between sunset and sunrise, and that fish activity was significantly associated with temperature and time of day. Understanding the timing and drivers of lake sturgeon’s behavior is fundamental ecological knowledge that describes how animals are interacting with their environment.

“Unfortunately, fish behaviors can result in negative interactions between animals and humans. For sturgeon, that can be quite literal, as they are susceptible to lethal collisions with ships,” said Dr. Phil Willink, senior research biologist at Shedd Aquarium. “However, if we know when fish are active, perhaps we can tailor strategies to protect them and help restore a once-thriving population to historic abundances.”

Lake sturgeon are the largest fish in the Great Lakes basin, having first appeared in the fossil record 136 million years ago. Once so abundant in local waters that they were caught and used as pig feed and fertilizer, sturgeon numbers have plummeted. Today, these ancient fish are listed as threatened or endangered by many states through most of their range, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Ontario.

“Lake sturgeon live in the waters in our own backyard, yet there are still so many questions about what is happening with the fish beneath the surface,” said Greg Jacobs, former fish biologist with the Service who designed the study. “As human impacts on the natural world continue to increase, it is important to take advantage of new technology to better understand how we are affecting the environment and the animals we share it with.”

Indeed, biologists with the Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Northeast Fishery Center continue to monitor and evaluate lake sturgeon movements and spawning behavior in the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Shedd connects people to the Great Lakes and conservation issues through exhibits such as At Home on the Great Lakes. The exhibit features 60 non-native and native species including a sturgeon touch pool experience. As guests touch a swimming sturgeon and see an iconic Great Lakes fish species first-hand, Shedd seeks to spark compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world.

For more information about Shedd’s Great Lakes conservation initiative, visit www.sheddaquarium.org/GreatLakes. For more information about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s work in the lower Great Lakes, visit http://www.fws.gov/northeast/lowergreatlakes.

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