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Shedd Aquarium Joins Tennessee Aquarium to Give Endangered Fish Species a Head Start

Barrens Topminnow Populations Have Depleted Steadily as a Result of Habitat Loss and Invasive Species

April 13, 2020

Sitting room with curved wall, water pattern projection and a round habitat with green plants and small fish in Underwater Beauty exhibit.

Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium may be closed to the public, but it has still welcomed some very special new residents. The aquarium joined forces with Tennessee Aquarium to safeguard the endangered Barrens topminnow (Fundulus julisia) from extinction. Earlier this year, Shedd welcomed six individual fish to begin a head-start program on behalf of the species, which was listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in October 2019. Shedd recently observed successful spawning, meaning the aquarium is one step closer to rearing young, which will remain at Shedd until they are large enough to return to native habitat in Tennessee and bolster the wild populations.

Animal care staff use intricate yarn structures to mimic heavy vegetation, where the topminnows typically hide and spawn. The six individuals at Shedd Aquarium, which will live behind the scenes, are expected to spawn several times, meaning several young topminnows may have the opportunity to make the trip to Tennessee and grow the wild populations. Though much of this work will happen in areas that guests don’t normally see, Shedd plans to develop a habitat in the special exhibit, Underwater Beauty, which will connect guests to this beautiful fish and the ongoing head-start effort.

“The topminnows are doing well here at Shedd, and we look forward to applying our expertise with fish spawning and rearing to benefit a vulnerable species in the wild,” said Keoki Burton, supervisor of special exhibits at Shedd Aquarium. “This head-start program is an important effort that hits close to our mission of keeping the aquatic world diverse and healthy.”

The Tennessee Aquarium along with several conservation partners have been working since 2001 to monitor vulnerable topminnow populations and protect a narrowing amount of habit that is critical to the survival of the species. These Tennessee native fish are found in only five locations on the Barrens Plateau.

Aside from habitat degradation, the topminnow population is also being ravaged by the introduction of the invasive western mosquitofish, which not only outcompetes the native fish species but has also been witnessed consuming young Barrens topminnow fry. Head-starting the minnows until they’ve outgrown this juvenile stage gives them a better chance at surviving when they are reintroduced to native waters.

“We are honored to have the Shedd Aquarium join us in our efforts to help preserve and save the Barrens topminnow,” said Matt Hamilton, Curator of Fishes at the Tennessee Aquarium. “Our goal is to not only raise offspring to help with the recovery efforts but to also build an Ark population that safeguards the species in the event of complete extirpation of the Barrens topminnow in the wild. We have nearly two decades of work under our belt. With the conservation efforts of the Tennessee Aquarium and the Barrens Topminnow Work Group, we have released more than 44,000 Barrens topminnows into the natural habitat. It truly has to be community effort to save this fish and the habitat it calls home.”

This is the second head-start program operated by Shedd’s Animal Response Team. The first launched at Shedd in 2018, when the aquarium joined several organizations to raise young Blanding’s turtles – a local species that are considered endangered in the state of Illinois.

The efforts of zoos and aquariums to conserve and protect species does not stop, despite the shutdown. To help mitigate the financial impacts on Shedd Aquarium, you can help support our mission through various ways, including adopting an aquatic animal, making a donation, or becoming a member. The public can also show support by donating the value of previously purchased tickets for a visit, group and experience reservations, programs and events and more. 

You can also directly support Tennessee Aquarium as they work to protect endangered species like the Barren’s topminnow by making a donation here.

VISUALS: High resolution photos of the Barrens topminnows at Shedd can be viewed and downloaded here:

Photo credit: ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Tennessee Aquarium’s Barrens topminnow recovery work can be viewed here: