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Georgia Wild E-Newsletter

Conserving the robust redhorse

Discovered by the naturalist Edward Cope in 1869, the robust redhorse (Moxostoma robustum) was generally thought extinct and had been lost to science for more than 100 years until a population was found in the Oconee River in 1991. Nicknamed the "mystery fish" by researchers, this rare member of the sucker family has been the focus of ongoing research projects to determine the status of existing populations and initiate recovery efforts across the fish's three-state range Georgia and the Carolinas.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) along with other state and federal resource agencies, the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology and Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, the Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit,  major power companies, and conservation community members are working together to implement a recovery plan for the imperiled species. The recovery team has formed the Robust Redhorse Conservation Committee to coordinate efforts.

An adult robust redhorse can grow to 30 inches and weigh 17 pounds. Adults feed only on mussels and clams (bi-valves) and may be an important host fish for some freshwater mussels. With a life span of nearly 30 years, the robust redhorse is considered an indicator species for determining the health of Georgia's aquatic ecosystems primarily within the Savannah and Altamaha river basins.

The ultimate goal is to achieve six self-sustaining populations within Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Currently there are believed to be three wild populations in Georgia: on the Savannah River, the Oconee River and possibly a small remnant group on the Ocmulgee River south of Macon. There are three stocked populations, on the upper Ocmulgee between lakes Juliette and Jackson, on the Ogeechee River and on the Broad River. There is also a wild population in the Pee Dee River in North and South Carolina, and two stocked populations in South Carolina.

The robust redhorse spawns over gravel substrate in swift, shallow water, returning to the same sites each year to spawn and occasionally traveling as far as 70 miles during migration.

Two projects being conducted and funded by Nongame Conservation funds include:

  • Documenting the status of the stocked population in the Broad River. Researchers have established a significant stocked population, but the next step is determining whether those fish are self-sustaining. If they successfully reproduce, the species will be closer to recovery.
  • Studying by radio telemetry adult fish in the Oconee River. The survey looks at large movement patterns of the robust redhorse in the Oconee, with monitoring also extending to the Altamaha and Ocmulgee to track any migration into those rivers. Researchers hope to better understand factors leading to an apparent recent decline in the population and use the research in making management decisions to improve it.

Although there is still plenty to do, the recovery team working through the Robust Redhorse Committee has made significant progress in improving the status of this unique species throughout its historic range. The project also demonstrates that diverse groups can establish effective partnerships to conserve Georgia's natural resources.

Jimmy Evans, a fisheries biologist with the DNRs Wildlife Resources Division, said its almost unprecedented to find a fish that has been lost to science for over a hundred years.

"We think there are things we know and then this happens. It just goes to show that there is still so much out there we don't know. Mysteries."

The Georgia Aquarium has a display dedicated to the robust redhorse. Go online to http://www.georgiaaquarium.org/animal-guide/georgia-aquarium/home/galleries/river-scout/gallery-animals/robust-redhorse-sucker for details.

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