A fish species older than the dinosaurs is returning to Caddo Lake in Texas after a decades-long absence. According to KWTX, wildlife officials from state and federal agencies released 50 paddlefish into Caddo Lake recently in an effort to reintroduce the species and revitalize the ecosystem.

“It’ll be very important if we can show […] that we can reintroduce and recover this fish, more as a symbol of returning the system to a healthy condition,” Rice Lowerre, president of the Caddo Lake Institute, told the Associated Press.

Paddlefish disappeared from Caddo Lake in the 1950s after dam construction altered water flow. One unexpected consequence in the creation of the Lake O’ the Pines Dam was that it interfered with stronger flows called “spring pulses” that signaled the paddlefish to swim to their spawning grounds. Unable to tell when to migrate, the Caddo Lake paddlefish eventually died out. The species is one of many affected by the construction of dams across the country and now federal agencies are working to reverse the damage. The US Army Corps of Engineers and local water providers have agreed to operate the Lake O’ the Pines so that water is released much more naturally, allowing the paddlefish a second chance in Caddo Lake.

The strange prehistoric fish is being used as a sort of litmus test for the ecosystem as a whole. If the 50 paddlefish released by scientists survive, it will be a sign that Caddo Lake is recovering. Biologists from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) will be tracking the fish, which can grow up to seven feet and 200 pounds, from small boats. The US Fish and Wildlife Service will also be monitoring the fish with inserted transmitters, which will be tracked by recieving towers placed around the lake so scientists can better understand the fish’s movement.

Paddlefish are the oldest known surviving animal species in North America. According to the TPWD, fossil records indicate that the species had been alive at least as late as 300 million years ago. One of the most unique features of the species is that they lack teeth: a paddlefish eats by swimming through water and consuming whatever falls into its mouth. Their defining characteristic, of course, is the spatula-shaped “paddle” that makes up its snout. Although it is illegal to catch paddlefish in Texas, some states with higher populations do allow angling for the species.

With the new changes in the dam’s operation, biologists hope that the paddlefish will be able to thrive in Caddo Lake and change the species’ threatened status in Texas.

Image courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service

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