Aquatic Fauna in Peril > Preface
Illustration by Tom Tarpley.


Soon it will be spring, and in a handful of southeastern rivers a freshwater mussel known as the orange-nacre mucket will once again fish for a home for its young. As if driven by some insane inspiration, this unpretentious looking invertebrate will package its young in a self-made fishing lure which looks like two minnows swimming side-by-side. The likeness is truly amazing. When conditions are just right, the mussel’s maternal instinct will instigate it to produce a long, clear, gelatinous line which it will attach to the lure. As the line is produced, the lure is payed-out into the stream, taking with it the lot of a future generation. Waving in the shallows of a clear stream, the line is nearly invisible, yet the lure is quite the opposite. Under direct force of the passing water, and being further influenced by its invisible tether, the lure looks like and acts like two lovesick minnows — minnows who seem oblivious to their surroundings while carrying out a dramatic courtship dance. As the fishing continues the lure is noticed by a passing bass. Its reaction is startlingly quick. In a blink of an eye it charges and engulfs the lure. The force of being sucked in ruptures the lure and out spill the tiny mussels. At this point in their lives, each mussel is like a miniature mousetrap. As some of them contact the gills of the bass they snap shut, clamping onto their would be killer. Here they will live for a while, deriving some unknown need without which they cannot continue to develop. Eventually they will mature enough to drop off of the bass, and they will disappear into the stream’s bottom to slowly grow into adults.

Few know the wonderful story of the orange-nacre mucket. In fact, it was only recently discovered. The life history of this remarkable mussel hints at some possible reasons for its apparent scarcity. For example, could it be that the high levels of siltation which today so commonly cloud streams throughout much of the Southeast are detrimental to the fishing action of this species? If this is proved correct, then ultimately it will be through an understanding of the life history requirements of this species that the critical information needed to help ensure its survival will be identified.

Without life history information, few plants or animals are colorful enough or oddly shaped enough to interest most people. It is the action of life, the interactions and peculiarities, which excites. Unfortunately, we know little about the lives of some of the most commonplace plants and animals. So little in fact, that with very minor training most anyone can make detailed contributions to the understanding of our natural heritage. But beyond the nature specials aired on television, is such information important? Absolutely. For one, life history information can sometimes be applied as in the foregoing example to help conserve and restore some natural resources. Secondly, the desire to properly manage nature stems from an appreciation of the organisms which compose it. Beyond the relative handful of plants and animals which we have domesticated or have otherwise knowingly come to rely upon, the greatest abundance of living things can best be appreciated if the roles they play in nature are understood. For it is through this understanding that we are amazed and humbled by the great mysteries of life, and by the great capacities of species to mingle together in the grandest of networks. Only through such understanding will we realize why our natural heritage is so special and important. And only through such understanding will we build the resolve to preserve nature so that future generations may inherit its marvels.

Of course, education is crucial to cultivate the appreciation required to preserve the rich biological potential which can help ensure that new, yet currently unidentified opportunities will become realities over the years ahead. With this in mind, we are sorry to report that our children often go hungry regarding their appetite for information about the natural world in which they are immersed. Nowadays, most children will probably learn more about lions on the African plains, white sharks off the coast of Australia, or giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands in one evening of public broadcasting than they will learn throughout their entire childhood about the individual plants and animals that live in their own backyards. This is unfortunate, for children have a natural curiosity about nature. Broadcasting depicting exotic animals and the plight of the rainforest will no doubt interest and benefit children. However, without bridges linking such programming to objects closer to home, children become stranded without mechanisms for firsthand experience. Seldom are such bridges built, as the system of higher education which produces our elementary and secondary school teachers is woefully inadequate at arming these vitally important professionals with the information to inspire wonder and to dispel the myths which ultimately conspire to drive children indoors and away from their world. By the time many children reach college age, most have been indoctrinated into a lifestyle of seclusion from nature, a lifestyle through which urban and suburban dwellers come to view cattlefields and cornfields as the great outdoors, and one in which we constantly devise new ways to vicariously experience the natural world.

It is amazing, therefore, that by college age some students are still interested in learning about nature, and overall this is powerful testimony of the allure of plants and animals. Unfortunately, most university life science curricula require so much minutia to be crammed into students’ heads that personal exigencies linked to a genuine curiosity about nature and the need to participate in the excitement of scientific discovery are soon betrayed. Many students become disillusioned. Sometimes they feel they can salvage their creativity and curiosity by transferring into other disciplines. Often they choose those which also use the concepts of discovery and prediction, and often the curricula associated with these "foster" disciplines are better at facilitating student contribution — a form of self-reward which goes a long way toward creating successful professionals. Without mechanisms for interested students to experience firsthand the thrill of science, it is no wonder that science continues to loose some of its brightest young minds.

The loss of bright, young, energetic science students has direct bearing on our ability to correct and avoid environmental problems such as the imperilment of native plants and animals. Most obviously, science helps to level the playing field regarding the management of natural resources. Just as an accountant and a financial forecaster can be vitally important in predicting the potential ramifications of a corporation’s financial actions, scientists can do likewise regarding manipulations of natural resources.

However, there is a less apparent and yet potentially more important reason why the loss of students from scientific disciplines along with the aforementioned general dissociation from nature collude to undermine the responsible stewardship of natural resources. The problem here is one associated with identity, empathy, and science literacy, and to illustrate the dilemma we will advance the following analogy. Many of us enjoy and support professional sports, yet few of us have been professional athletes. Much of our vicarious enjoyment of and support for professional sports was probably nurtured early in our lives through programs which allow youngsters to play various games as if they were in the big leagues. The excitement associated with these experiences is not trivial, and it no doubt has deposited an indelible mark in the minds of many. A great urgency exists to create similar connections with science, and in particular the biological disciplines, to expand upon opportunities for non-scientists to really participate in science. This is especially true regarding experiences for high school and undergraduate students. Ultimately it will only be through the widespread understanding of science that the important work of scientists will be financially endorsed.

Table 1. Where did they come from? Numbers of paid registrants, and their general affiliations, who attended Aquatic Fauna In Peril: The Southeastern Perspective on March 31 and April 1, 1994 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Colleges and Universities1
Federal Agencies
State Agencies
Private Companies2
Aquariums, Zoos, Nature Centers3
Communications Media
1 includes 60 faculty members and 17 students.
2 includes for-profit and not-for-profit companies/institutions; does not include aquariums, zoos, nature centers or communications media.
3 does not include attendance of 36 Tennessee Aquarium staff members and volunteers.

The chapters contained in this volume are updated versions of most of the presentations given at a conference of the same name held in Chattanooga, Tennessee on March 31 and April 1 in 1994. The conference was both organized and sponsored by the Tennessee Aquarium. The overall goal of the conference was to examine the historical and current state of affairs regarding imperiled aquatic animals in the southeastern United States. The importance of holding such a conference becomes obvious when one considers that the Southeast contains the highest level of species richness in North America, that aquatic organisms are well represented in this fauna, and that many of the Southeast’s aquatic habitats are under increasing pressures which have resulted in and continue to result in deleterious effects on wildlife. While other conferences addressing these matters from the perspective of individual groups of plants and animals had been convened, we felt it would be beneficial to bring together a wider group of specialists to frame the history of this dilemma and chart some possible solutions from more of an ecosystem perspective.

Presentations on the first day of the conference focused on historical perspectives of major groups of aquatic animals and ecosystems. Those of the second day concentrated on the management history of many of these same groups, and in doing so presenters (authors) often developed recommendations and advanced philosophies concerning future conservation and restoration efforts. Presenters were given some latitude regarding the geographic boundaries of their respective tasks. However, unless otherwise stated, the "Southeast" was defined as a region composed of the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Presenters were also given leeway concerning the measurement of imperilment and the status of imperilment of animals under their consideration, and were similarly given the flexibility to assign "aquatic status" to animals which are obligatorily or strongly facultatively tied to aquatic environments through non-physiological and sometimes unapparent or seldom considered mechanisms. Together, these factors might seem to overly swell the ranks of imperiled southeastern aquatic animals, but we think not. As many human water-use issues have recently illustrated, a species doesn’t have to continually swim, dive, or float to be intimately dependent on aquatic environments. In fact, if we look at the distribution and nature of human populations, we might even consider ourselves to be facultatively semi-aquatic.

In fleshing out the conference program, the organizers sought the participation of authoritative professionals. In some instances this task was relatively simple, while in other situations the dearth of information and professional activity regarding some important groups of aquatic animals became painfully apparent. Along with time constraints, this unfortunately resulted in some groups of animals, as well as representatives from four other living Kingdoms, from being discussed. For this we apologize. Furthermore, even though they outnumber the sum of all fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals by orders of magnitude, invertebrates were only represented by several ambassador groups such as some insects, crustaceans, and mollusks.

Ultimately the conference schedule gelled into a cohesive program with an impressive roster of presenters consisting of many fine field biologists representing a wide array of state and federal agencies, universities and colleges, and private for-profit and not-for-profit institutions. Interest in the conference was considerable, and the event attracted 242 paid registrants (see Table 1) and 282 total attendants. The regional focus of the conference did not deter the attendance of people from as far away as Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Missouri, and in all, registrants represented a total of 22 states and the District of Columbia. We hope that these statistics and this volume will build the confidence of other institutions to carry out similar regional conferences.

The success of the conference generated considerable interest regarding the publication of a quasi proceedings. Not only was there support for this from many of the attendees seeking additional information, but the potential ability of such a volume to extend the temporal and spatial reach of the conference seemed significant and worthwhile. Thus plans for this volume were born.

Toward best fulfilling their chapter obligations, authors typically had to rely on some information gleaned from personal communications as well as some contained in what is commonly referred to as "gray" literature. Many scientific journals and books shy away from the latter. We, however, consider the matters associated with imperilment to be urgent; too urgent to wait for the process of peer review to legitimize well-studied natural phenomena. This situation is further exacerbated by the fact that in many agencies, heavy workloads do not facilitate the formal publication of important research results, and it is information contained in "gray" literature which has formed much of the working foundation associated with actual management decisions. Because of this, we maintain that this literature needs to be properly recognized and that the value of many intra- and interagency reports should not be underestimated regarding their importance to conservation and restoration initiatives. We are especially proud, therefore, that this volume exposes a portion of the wealth contained in unpublished yet otherwise accessible literature.

We hope that this volume will interest you — for the fate of many of the animals discussed throughout its pages ultimately relies on us. We hope that this volume will perturb you — for it chronicles an unfortunate odyssey which has resulted in the imperilment of much of our natural heritage. Finally, we hope this volume will instill the kind of desire that encourages change — for the loss of our priceless aquatic resources need not continue.


George W. Benz
Southeast Aquatic Research Institute and Tennessee Aquarium


David E. Collins
Tennessee Aquarium

Chattanooga, Tennessee, February 1997

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