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After 51 years, tiny fish reappears in Md. waters

Wild critters, from the Regal Fritillary butterfly to the bog turtle, may be in peril in Maryland. But here's some cheerful news: A tiny freshwater fish, missing from Maryland's streams for 51 years, was found last month living in tributaries of the Patuxent River in Prince George's County.

The stripeback darter, last spotted in state waters in 1944, was officially listed by wildlife officials as "endangered/extirpated" in Maryland. Scientists assumed it had been wiped out in state waterways, although the fish still could be found in parts of Virginia and West Virginia.

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State environmental researchers applauded. "The more species you have, the more diversity you have, the healthier our water and streams are," said Judy Harding, a zoologist with the Maryland Natural Heritage Program. "If species start dying off, there's a reason for that."

A cousin of the stripeback, the snail darter, became a symbol for the Endangered Species Act in 1978, when the Supreme Court halted work on the Tellico Dam project in Tennessee to protect the fish's habitat.

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In late July, Steve McIninch, a biologist with the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory, netted six of the 2- to 3-inch-long stripebacks while surveying the Collington Branch of the Patuxent River, near Upper Marlboro.

About a week later, Rich Raesly, assistant professor of biology at Frostburg State University, was collecting fish in the Western Branch, another Patuxent tributary, about two miles from where Dr. McIninch had been working.

Dr. Raesly, who didn't know about Dr. McIninch's discovery, recognized immediately that he had landed a couple of stripebacks, one of about 150 darter species. The bottom-dwelling, insect-eating fish are members of the perch family.

"It was one of the animals I was looking for, but I was very surprised to find it," said Dr. Raesly, who was searching for rare fish species for the state Natural Heritage Program.

Biologists are concerned about that area, he said, because it is beginning to be more heavily developed, which could affect water quality in local streams.

"Many of the historic localities for some of the species that we're looking for have been drastically altered in the last 40 to 50 years," Dr. Raesly said.

Stripebacks once were found in the Anacostia River. "Because of all the development that took place in the Anacostia, it is assumed it was wiped out there, due to sedimentation, destruction of habitat and poor water quality," Dr. Raesly said.

Evidently, though, the fish hung on, surviving in isolated stretches of some Prince George's streams, tributaries of the Patuxent not yet polluted by suburban growth.

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"This whole area down there has not been really thoroughly studied in a number of years, so I'm sure it's been hanging on in a few isolated localities," he said.

The vast majority of darters live in riffles -- shallow, rocky sections of streambed. But the stripeback may be one of the few darter species that prefer to live in pools, he said.

It's not unusual for an entire species of the small fish to exist in a small area. The Maryland darter, a species now thought to be extinct, may have been restricted in its range to a single 50-yard-long riffle of Deer Creek in Harford County.

Dr. Raesly was the last person to report seeing a Maryland darter, in 1988.

Of the eight stripebacks captured in July, all but one were released. Dr. Raesly said he preserved one, a female, as a specimen for a museum at Frostburg State.

The Stripeback Darter

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One of about 150 darter species in North America, the Stripeback is found in Virginia streams but had not been spotted in Maryland since 1944. Several were seen recently in tributaries of the Patuxent River in Prince George's County.

Size: 2 to 3 inches long

Habitat: Freshwater, prefers pools in small and medium-sized streams

Range: James River drainage in Virginia and extreme eastern West Virginia and Patuxent River drainage in Maryland.



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