Why study fish in Arizona?
Good question. That's certainly what I (Scott) asked myself, when I was offered a postion in Arizona studying fish. However, I soon found, as do many others who live here, the fish populations of the Southwest are amazing. Arizona's environments range from high mountain tundra and conifer forests to burning lowland deserts. These areas support a wide variety of fishes. You will find unique species with less than a few hundred individuals found nowhere else on the planet. Some of these fishes live in waters well over 100 degrees F, with a salinity higher than seawater. You find some of the most southern trout species in North America tucked away in the Arizona high country. Desert fish with huge humps and strong tails navigate the rushing rapids of the Colorado River. Colorful,active pupfish and minnow species dart across small isolated desert springs and streams. Magnificent sport fish ply the huge reservoirs and urban lakes of the state.
So what? What good are these fish?
Even in the desert, healthy fish populations are important to a healthy ecosystems. Fish serve a role in aquatic communities by keeping other aquatic organsims from overcrowding. For example, they prey on mosquito larvae, keeping dangerous clouds of insects at bay. They can serve as food - to other fishes, and terrestrial wildlife such as birds, and various small and large mammals, including man. Removing a species from an ecosystem is much like removing a rivet from an airplane. Many rivets hold the airplane together, and you may not know the effects of removing the rivet until it is too late.
Desert fish are valuable to humans. According to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation, wildlife watching, hunting and fishing are worth almost $2 billion dollars to the Arizona economy each year. Of this figure, fishing alone brings in $800 million dollars per year (which doesn't count those who fish watch in Arizona!). The annual value of activities directed to the state's fish and wildlife is higher than all crop production in the state per year ($1.5 billion per year, USDA statistics); all livestock production ($1.3 billion per year, USDA statistics); and spring baseball training ($0.3 billion per year). Tourists flock to Arizona to see the unique fish and wildlife, angle and hunt.
Fish and other aquatic plants and animals from the desert have contributed, and continue to contribute, to civilization in other ways as well. Papyrus, an aquatic reed from the Nile River, was used to make paper, contributing to the development of civilization and leading to rapid advancements in communication. We often think of Ben Franklin "discovering" electricity, but the electric catfish, which are found in the desert rivers of North Africa, taught the people living there about the principles of electric current. (Often - the hard way when they picked up fish!) Currently, scientists study desert pupfish, which live in highly saline environments, to learn about human kidney function. Researchers study the eyes of the aquatic desert sunburst beetle, which uses a rare type of vision, to develop new technology for videography equipment. Potentially most important are the undicovered uses of many desert aquatic organisms. With climate change now ongoing, wouldn't you think we have much else to learn from animals who are accoustomed to living in hot areas at the limits of their tolerance?
Native desert fishes are exciting, but so are many of the sport fishes found in desert waterways. The blue-ribbon trout fisheries of Lee's Ferry, and the exciting black bass and striped bass fisheries of Arizona's lakes and reservoirs attract anglers from around the world.
Clearly, anyone damaging the state's water bodies and destroying fish communities takes money out of the pockets of many people; hurts the state's ecosystems; removes animals from which much knowledge can be gained; AND destroys some of the most unique wildlife on earth.
How does our laboratory contribute?
My students, staff and I study means to conserve these wonderful animals and their habitat. We work closely with state, federal and university biologists on collaborative projects that are designed to address critical practical management problems. The general principles we study here are not only applicable to desert fishes, but to fish populations in many other areas of the world. Our students and staff have graduated and moved on to successfully manage fishes in places as diverse as Wyoming, Canada, Arkansas, Florida, the Ukraine, Mongolia, Mexico, Oregon and many other areas of the Southwest to name a few.
Although we are an arid state, we have excellent facilities to study aquatic resources at the University of Arizona. We have several boats, trucks, and associated nets and electrofishing gear to sample all types of waterbodies; three different aquatic laboratory facilities to conduct experimental trials including a facilities to study effects of increasing temperatures on fishes, captively propagate desert fishes; and a University and staff dedicated to excellence in teaching and research. University of Arizona is probably not the best place to study high seas fisheries. However, if you want to receive a well-rounded education that includes exposure to both aquatic and terrestrial conservation this may be your place! To learn more specifics about projects on which we work go to the "Meet the students and staff and learn what we do" page!