A declining population is one of the trademarks of an endangered species, but Missouri’s Neosho madtom population seems to defy that unwritten rule.
It’s believed this small catfish is as numerous as it’s probably ever been in the state. However, because that population has always been small, it’s hold on existence in Missouri is as precarious today as it’s ever been. Therein lies the reason why this fish is one of the state’s endangered species and is an example why water quality is so important.
Few vertebrate species have a smaller range in Missouri than the Neosho madtom. This fish is found in a small stretch of the Spring River in western Jasper County – an area that comprises approximately 5-7 miles – and that’s it. Besides the Spring River, Neosho madtoms were historically listed as occurring in the Neosho, Cottonwood, Spring and Illinois rivers in Kansas and Oklahoma. While its population appears relatively unchanged in Missouri, it is dwindling elsewhere. The fish is no longer present in the Illinois River and appears to be sparse in the rest of its range. It carries a federal designation of “threatened.”
Even if Neosho madtoms were more abundant in Missouri, it’s doubtful many people would ever see them. This small catfish buries itself in gravel during daylight hours and emerges at night to look for food. Feeding is most intense within three hours after sunset. The Neosho madtom’s diet consists mostly of caddisflies, mayflies and midges.
The reproductive habits of this species have not been documented but they probably mimic those of other madtom species that make cavity nests in protected hiding places. After eggs are laid, they are guarded by one or both parents. Neosho madtom offspring have been found in July, suggesting a late spring or early summer spawning season.
Threats to long-term survival of the Neosho madtom include gravel-dredging and changes in water quality caused by surrounding land-use changes. Pollution caused by chemical and fertilizer run-off is another threat.
Why should we care about what happens to a species that was, in all probability, never numerous in Missouri? It’s because the decline of a species – no matter its level of pre-settlement abundance – often translates into some type of negative impact on humans. In the case of the Neosho madtom, the water it needs for survival is the same water we use for a variety of personal and commercial purposes. If that water is polluted, humans suffer consequences, too.
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Landowners can’t control changes that have occurred to this area’s streams due to urbanization and industrialization, but there are things they can do to help waterways that run through or next to their land. Planting willows and other types of bottomland vegetation on both sides of the stream will reduce erosion and soil run-off into the water. Livestock should also be excluded from the streams with fencing. Taking measures such as these will improve the water for the aquatic creatures that live in it and for the humans that use it.
It’s probable that the Neosho madtom will never be more than a species that’s barely hanging on for survival in Missouri. However, that doesn’t mean we should let it slip into extinction in this state.
When it comes to understanding the link between wildlife populations and humans, sometimes the best way to see the big picture is to look at the small one.