View Mobile Site

Ask the Expert

Signal Photos


On safari for the stickleback

Local nature center officials will search for tiny, elusive fish

Posted: June 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Officials at Placerita Canyon Nature Center and Natural Area are polishing a tabletop in a corner of their visitors center where they plan to put a big aquarium and fill it with a tiny, tenacious fish indigenous to our area - but that very few have seen.

This summer, they are going on safari for the elusive unarmored three-spine stickleback.

They're gearing up for the hunt - submitting all the necessary permit forms with the Department of Fish & Game, ordering special "extremely invisible" transparent nets, buying hip waders for a five-person safari team, and reading up on their finger-sized prey.

"What I want to do is get enough specimens and put them in a tank, with the sole purpose of having it available for people to see live specimens," said Placerita regional park Superintendent Russell M. Kimura.

"No one has done anything about preserving a specimen of the fish," Kimura said.

The center has plenty of turtles and snakes, hawks and rodents, but no specimen of the animal that has lived in the Santa Clarita Valley longer than any other - especially humans.

Prickly survivor

The unarmored three-spine stickleback has been around since the Ice Age - literally.

It shared Southern California with dinosaurs, saber-toothed tigers and bear-sized sloths.

But when those animals died, the stickleback survived.

As a freshwater fish the size of a minnow, fighting for its life in a quasidesert terrain, the stickleback has survived every single major drought since the Ice Age and has managed to dodge every predator two to 10 times its size.

It survived the dustbowl days of the "Dirty Thirties" and it outlasted Southern California's last extended drought in the early '90s.

When the glaciers melted more than 10,000 years ago and ice-cold water rushed to the ocean down the Santa Clarita Valley, swelling the banks of the Santa Clara River with thousands of steelhead trout the size of house cats, the stickleback made the Santa Clarita Valley its home in the river's slow-moving near-stagnant tributaries and settled in for the long haul.

It has since survived thousands of periods of prolonged drought, mastering a means of survival by burrowing into the mud when the river dries up.

When the rains stop, the prickly fish fights its way up tributaries veining down the sides of the Angeles National Forest.

There are other sticklebacks in California - but not like the one found only in the Santa Clara River.

Of the state's three types, the local variety is the only one that exhibits no scales.

"It's almost like a skin," Kimura said.

And, while the fish is unique, so is its home.

The Santa Clara River is still the longest free-flowing river in Southern California and the only one that winds through a pronounced and ruggedly dynamic topography of mountains from the desert to the ocean.

As the glaciers melted and the river sharpened those characteristics that make it unique, from desert to sea, it attracted hundreds of unique plants and animals, lizards, birds and fish.

Rare sight

So few have actually seen the stickleback that finding and capturing the creature is rare.

Two major safari-like ventures have been conducted to find and protect the unarmored three-spine stickleback since it was deemed an endangered species back in 1970.

The first expedition was called the Recovery Plan of 1977.

In 1985, researcher Shoken Sasaki with the California Department of Fish & Game led a team to also find and protect the spiky fish as part of the Revised Recovery Plan.

Kimura hopes to pick up where Sasaki left off.

"He was responsible for studying the stickleback and he was doing a collection, but at the end of his report he lays out what he plans to do, but there doesn't seem to be a conclusion," Kimura said.

The park supervisor now wonders whether Sasaki's team was successful in actually finding the unarmored three-spine stickleback.

"I need a long-handled net that's even more transparent than the one Fish & Game use," he said. "(The stickleback) shy away from the nets we use. We need a fluorocarbon net, not just a monofilament net. It's extremely invisible."

Kimura could have requested a permit from Fish & Game officials to electro-shock the fish, stunning it as if with a taser. That allows the fish to be easily scooped up.

But Kimura is going the flurocarbon route instead.

"We have to go out to those areas and do the best we can," he said. "How many can we catch? We don't know the answer to that."





Commenting not available.
Commenting is not available.


Powered By
Morris Technology
Please wait ...