Rare Fish Discovered in North Carolina’s Chowan River Basin


Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission made an exciting discovery last month after finding a rare minnow in the Deep Swamp Branch in Hertford County.

The discovery on May 1 by Tyler Black, a fisheries biologist, and Michael Young, a fisheries technician, marks the first time the bridle shiner has been found in the Chowan River basin in North Carolina. The tiny minnow, which rarely exceeds two inches, was last seen in a section of the Chowan River basin in Virginia in the late 1960s. Until last month, the bridle shiner was thought to be extirpated from the Chowan River.

Black and Young found the shiner while sampling for another rare aquatic animal, the Chowanoke crayfish. Although they weren’t looking for shiners specifically, they recognized the lone fish immediately by its distinctive black band, which runs from the tip of its snout down the length of its body. They knew that finding it was an extraordinary “needle in the haystack” discovery that doesn’t happen often during a biologist’s career, according to Black.

“Realistically, it is more like finding a specific needle in a stack of needles because we frequently collect other species of shiners that closely resemble the bridle shiner,” Black said.  “This discovery puts the bridle shiner back on the radar for the Chowan River basin and speaks volumes to the importance of conducting contemporary distribution surveys.”

While they searched for additional shiners that day, they were unable to find any. However, they are excited about the discovery because it extends the known distribution of bridle shiners in North Carolina. They remain optimistic that they will find more bridle shiners in the Chowan in future surveys.

The bridle shiner’s historic range spans from Lake Ontario in Canada to the Santee River in South Carolina. However, in North Carolina, the bridle shiner has been found only in the Neuse River and not since 2001. In fact, the bridle shiner has declined throughout much of its historic range, with most states listing the species as vulnerable, imperiled, threatened or endangered. In North Carolina, it is listed as state endangered.

A slow-moving swimmer that needs the dense cover of aquatic vegetation to hide from predators and disperse its eggs, the bridle shiner is extremely sensitive to the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation that can occur with the use of herbicides and poor land use practices that result in excessive sedimentation and pollution. In addition, the introduction of exotic aquatic plants, such as hydrilla and Eurasian watermilfoil, has hindered recovery of native vegetation that bridle shiners prefer.

Now that a bridle shiner has been verified in North Carolina, biologists plan to conduct a follow-up survey in the Deep Swamp Branch and surrounding water bodies later this summer to determine the extent of the Chowan River population in North Carolina.

Survey work for aquatic nongame wildlife is supported through donations made to the Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Fund.

The public can support this effort as well as other nongame wildlife monitoring, research and management projects in North Carolina by:

Find out more about nongame and endangered wildlife by visiting the Wildlife Resources Commission’s Conserving page.

Read More