Pallid Sturgeon MIA

 When reproductive pallid sturgeon go missing during spring spawning season CSRP biologists become quickly concerned as every day at large means a decrease in the probability of relocation prior to spawning.  Because reproductive pallid sturgeon have been observed to move great distances (>10 miles per day), especially during spring spawning migrations, increased effort is required to search longer river segments when they go missing.  Pallid sturgeon may go undetected for a number of reasons but is typically one of the following three.  Pallid sturgeon may simply migrate outside of the estimated search radius, in which case subsequent searches covering more river miles may locate them.  Another possibility is that pallid sturgeon may move into habitats from which their acoustic signal does not resonate well or are not easily accessed by boat and therefore are not searched regularly.  In this case the pallid sturgeon might go undetected until it moves out of such habitats. Lastly, pallid sturgeon may migrate into relatively large tributaries that are not regularly searched.  Biologists believe that tributary confluences and the lower portions of tributaries may provide refuge, feeding opportunities, or reproductive requirements of the species in the highly modified Lower Missouri River.  This is exactly what biologists suspected when multiple days of searching the mainstem Missouri River failed to locate PLS11-004, a reproductive female previously found approximately 5 miles downstream of the Kansas River confluence in Kansas City, KS.  So up the Kansas River CSRP biologists went in search of PLS11-004, to river mile 15 to the Johnson County water intake weir.  Originally built in 1964, it has since seen its share of modifications and currently supplies roughly 10 billion gallons of water per year to Water District 1, or WaterOne, of Kansas.  CSRP biologists believed that if PLS11-004 had chosen the Kansas River, current river levels would not permit her to swim past the weir and she would certainly be in the lower 15 miles.  When it was all said and done PLS11-004 was located by another CSRP crew in the mainstem of the Missouri River approximately 15 miles upstream of the Kansas River, leaving biologist to wonder where she’d been and what she’d been up too.  In any case, her unpredictable behavior treated one CSRP crew to the sights and sounds of the Kansas River which they seldom frequent.

Johnson County water intake weir on the Kansas River.

 By Jake Faulkner

Posted in Telemetry tracking |

Across The River And Into The Trees

These weren’t just the last words of General Jackson in the Hemingway novel.  On Friday, April 12th, biologists located PLS11-004, a reproductive, female pallid sturgeon during her upstream migration, presumably to spawn.  In the morning PLS11-004 was observed crossing the river channel approximately one mile below the chute at Cranberry Bend (fig. 1).  This was exciting because she was heading upstream toward the chute, which is of particular interest to biologists.  The chute at Cranberry Bend, like many others along the Missouri River, is thought to enhance habitat diversity which may aid in the recovery of pallid sturgeon.  Pathways that fish take through chutes may also provide information to help in design fish-passage projects.  Documenting when and how pallid sturgeon use these habitats will help biologists to better understand the utility of such habitats to pallid sturgeon. 

 At approximately 2:40 that afternoon PLS11-004 reached the downstream entrance of the chute at Cranberry Bend, and found herself at a bit of a fork in the road, or in this case the river.  Both channels present different tradeoffs, but we can only speculate how PLS11-004 weighed the pros and cons at this intersection.  The next chirp of the hydrophone let biologists know she had forgone the mainstem and was on a path up through the chute.  With biologist hot on her trail, she spent the next three hours making her way through and around the numerous clumps of trees scattered throughout the chute (fig 2.).  In the end the trees did not appear to be used as a resting place, as Jackson envisioned, but none the less afforded something more suitable for PLS11-004 as she continued her migration upstream.  A few days later, USGS hydrologists mapped the velocities in the chute and mainstem in an attempt to quantify why she selected this path.

Figure 1. Point locations, and 24 hour time, showing the movement path of PLS11-004 as she negotiated the Missouri River from river mile 279 to 282 nearly Waverly, MO.


Figure 2. Although female pallid sturgeon PLS11-004 seemed to navigate the cluttered chute with ease, biologist, on the other hand, had to give careful consideration to their every move in their large river vessel. 


Posted in chute, Telemetry tracking |

The Gang of Eight

While we are far from Washington, DC, we have our own form of the bipartisan Gang of Eight; eight reproductive pallid sturgeon, fitted with radio telemetry tags, and ready to spawn this spring.  Four of these individual are currently located in the Lower Missouri River upstream of Rulo, Missouri confluence, and four are located downstream between St. Joseph, Missouri and Boonville, Missouri.

PLS11-016, PLS11-017, PLS11-018, and PLS11-020 are all female pallid sturgeon from the upper Lower Missouri River study segment released in reproductive condition from the conservation augmentation program during spring 2011, but that is where the similarities end.  Females PLS11-016, PLS11-017, and PLS11-020 were not intensively tracked during spring 2011; fortunately each of these fish were also implanted with data storage tags (DST) which record depth and temperature at 15-30 minute intervals.  These data allow us to examine behavior of individuals during periods that we would otherwise be unable to document and, in this case, give some indication of spawning location.  By comparing  various temperature data between the Platte and Missouri Rivers we were able to infer that PLS11-016 and PLS11-020 likely spawned in the Platte River, while PLS11-017 spawned somewhere in the mainstem of the Missouri River (see previous blog entry “Where Are You When I’m Not Looking?”).   PLS11-018, on the other hand, was intensively tracked but exhibited limited reproductive behavior, remaining relatively stationary for more than a month.  During June 2011, biologists targeted PLS11-018 for reproductive evaluation, which revealed that she had failed to spawn and her grey, mushy eggs were being reabsorbed.  Two years later all four are ready to spawn again.

The four reproductive pallid sturgeon in the downstream reaches of the Lower Missouri River have little in common.  Female pallid sturgeon PLS11-004 was initially captured and implanted during March 2011 in non-reproductive condition.  In the fall of 2012 she was targeted for recapture when she moved more than 100 miles upstream.  Ultrasound evaluation to assess reproductive condition revealed that she was reproductive and would likely attempt to spawn during spring 2013.  PLS08-035 is a female pallid sturgeon initially implanted during May 2008 in non-reproductive condition after being used as broodstock in the population augmentation program at Blind Pony State Fish Hatchery.  During the nearly five years of subsequent observations she has been recaptured and her reproductive condition re-evaluated during 2010, 2011, and 2012.  For the first four years she remained non-reproductive and relatively stationary.  That is, until October 2012, when ultrasound techniques revealed that she was reproductive and would likely spawn during spring 2013.  Two new fish joined the Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project, PLS13-001 and PLS13-002, rounding out the Gang.  PLS13-001 is a hatchery-reared, female pallid sturgeon initially captured and implanted April 2013.  Biologists were able to readily identify this fish was of hatchery origin by the presence of numerous tags including visual implant elastomer and coded wire.  Male pallid sturgeon PLS13-002 was initially captured and implanted April 2013.  Since implantation PLS13-002 has moved more than 40 miles upstream.

Biologists are hoping that this Gang of Eight will collaborate to reveal important new information on reproductive ecology of the pallid sturgeon.

Figure 1. Recent locations (as of May 6, 2013) for the eight reproductive pallid sturgeon being tracked by researchers.

Posted in Reproductive Female, Telemetry tracking |

The Other Sturgeon Species

Pallid sturgeon and their close relatives, the shovelnose sturgeon, are not the only sturgeon in the Missouri River. USGS and state research biologists sampling for pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River occasionally collect specimens of the “other” sturgeon species, the lake sturgeon (Photo 1—lake sturgeon). Lake sturgeon live in the large lakes and rivers of the mid-continental United States and Canada. They can live more than 100 years, grow to more than 2 meters (6 feet) or 90 kilograms (200 pounds), and may take more than 20 years to reach reproductive maturity. Similar to the pallid sturgeon, lake sturgeon populations declined dramatically as North America entered the 20th century. Overfishing, dam construction, channelization of large rivers, and unchecked pollution eliminated or severely reduced most populations. The lake sturgeon was nearly extirpated from the Missouri River by 1910. The species was listed as a State Endangered Species in Missouri in 1974. In 1984 the Missouri Department of Conservation began the long, but sustained effort to return the species to Missouri waters. The heavily built lake sturgeon, with its short conical snout (Photo 2—lake sturgeon head) is caught on trotlines while sampling for pallid sturgeon. Information about each captured sturgeon and the hatchery tags they carry are reported to the Missouri Department of Conservation to aid their efforts in monitoring populations and tracking progress towards recovery. Some of the lake sturgeon stocked early in the State’s recovery program are now more than 30 or 40 pounds are and searching for a suitable place to spawn.

Check out the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Lake Sturgeon webpage to learn more about the State’s efforts to recover the “other” Missouri River sturgeon. And if you happen to be out on the Missouri or Mississippi River, or one their tributaries and you are fortunate to catch a large lake sturgeon, your local Missouri Conservation Department office would like to hear about it.

Photo 1. A USGS Biologist holds a juvenile lake sturgeon caught on a trotline while sampling for pallid sturgeon. The young lake sturgeon had a PIT tag that identified it as a fish previously captured and released by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Photo 2. Compared to the pale, slender pallid sturgeon, the dark brown or olive grey lake sturgeon has a stocky build and a conical shaped nose snout. It is commonly referred to as a “rubbernose” sturgeon.


Posted in Uncategorized |

Rising To The Challenge

CSRP biologists working on the Missouri River have no shortage of challenges; each year brings a fresh crop.  In 2011, biologists were dealt record high flows that persisted through summer making work on the river trying.  Field crews found it necessary to employ tandem tracking, using two boats, one on each side of the river, to effectively detect telemetered pallid sturgeon (see blog entry “Sometimes It Takes Two”).  In 2012, spring came early and water temperatures increased quickly, reaching suitable spawning temperatures (15°C) 4 to 6 weeks earlier than normal.  For CSRP biologists that meant the discontinuation of spring sampling and scrambling to prepare for a fast approaching spawning season (see previous blog entry “An Early Spawning Recorded”).  As summer wore into fall, substantial drought and subsequent low river levels limited access and presented a new set of logistical issues (see previous blog entry “How Low Can It Go?”).  This year, the uncertainty of federal budget sequestration limits CSRP staffing and travel, yet again testing our creativity and versatility.  However, CSRP biologists are an unwavering sort and will meet the coming challenges of 2013  with determination and dedication.

Mean discharge and temperature of the Missouri River near Hermann, MO. The dashed bars represent the approximate threshold for pallid sturgeon spawning. In 2012, spawning temperatures were reached in March. Previous spawning events typically have occurred later in the springtime, from late April to early May.

Completed with contributions by Kimberly Chojnacki and Jake Faulkner

Posted in Telemetry tracking |

Sometimes The Missouri River Is A Lonely Place

In late February and March the Missouri River is a lonely place.  Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project boats from the USGS and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission search the cold, still waters for the telltale chirp of a telemetry transmitter indicating that they have located the wintertime haunt of an adult pallid sturgeon.  Few people visit the boats ramps or stop to ask the biologists what they are doing out on the Missouri River in the cold.  Other boats are rarely sighted on the river during the coldest months of the year; however, it does not mean that our activities go unnoticed.  Winter is a great time to observe wildlife along the river and concurrently provides an opportunity for wildlife to watch us.  Whitetail deer and beaver move along the banks while bald eagles soar above, occasionally dipping down to the water surface to snatch a fish.  On one Tuesday in March, a flock of ring-billed gulls rested along the river bank, jostling for the best position to view our biologists as they drifted a net with the icy current to capture a tagged sturgeon.  Alerted to the spectacle, a turkey perched himself high on a rock dike above the river to assess the cause of the commotion.  It is hard not to feel a little sense of added pressure when there are at least another 50 pair of eyes watching.

At the end of the day the biologists netted their fish.  PLS11-010 was weighed and measured, and the tags she had carried for the last two years were replaced with new ones supplied with fresh batteries.  The oocytes (developing eggs) inside her smooth abdomen are small and white, meaning she will not be ready to spawn this spring.  Maybe next year will be her year.

Ring-billed gulls line a sand bar along the Missouri River to watch USGS boats fish for sturgeon.

A wild turkey perches on a rock dike in the Missouri River to get a closer look at USGS boats fishing for sturgeon.

By Aaron DeLonay

Posted in Reproductive Female |

Ice Ice Baby

Freezing temperatures and low water levels have created significant ice flows in portions of the Lower Missouri River during winter months.  These conditions have made boat ramps unusable for our partners with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (see photo below), hampering pallid sturgeon tracking efforts in the most upstream segments of the study area.  Farther downstream, CSRP biologists located in Columbia, MO have been able to conduct their monthly river sweeps without difficulties arising from ice.  Low water conditions; however, continue to restrict access to the river at several locations between Kansas City and St. Louis.  In addition, shelf ice that forms along the banks of the river has made it difficult for CSRP biologists to retrieve submerged data loggers that monitor temperature throughout the year.  For more information on how this past year’s weather conditions have affected our efforts on the Missouri River, see previous post “How Low Can It Go?”.

January 2013: Ice flows and low water levels have hindered pallid sturgeon tracking efforts in portions of the Missouri River. Pictured is a boat ramp located near Omaha, Nebraska. Photo courtesy of Josh Wilhelm of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

January 2013: USGS biological science aid Jeff Beasley retrieves a temperature logger from the Missouri River near Decatur, NE. Several inches of ice were chipped away in order to gain access to the cable that secures the temperature logger to the bank.



Posted in Telemetry tracking |

How Low Can It Go?

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2012 marked the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States.  The year began with above-average temperatures and limited snowfall followed by an unusually warm spring.  In turn, the warm spring resulted in an early start to the 2012 growing season in several places, which increased the loss of moisture from soil.  These elements, in combination with other factors, helped lay the foundation for the drought conditions experienced by a significant portion of the U.S. in 2012.

The extreme temperatures and drought have had noticeable impacts on the Missouri River. In March of 2012 water temperatures in the Lower Missouri warmed  quickly, reaching spawning temperatures for many fish species far earlier than usual.  The following month, Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) biologists documented a pallid sturgeon spawning event that was approximately four to six weeks early compared to previous spawning events (See previous posts “Rising Temperature” and “An Early Spawning Record”).  Drought conditions have continued and resulted in low river levels into 2013. Unusually low river conditions  have the potential to create hazardous situations for our tracking boats through the winter including exposed sand bars and rock formations, ice flows, and unusable boat ramps.  With this in mind, CSRP biologists have been making extra efforts to ensure crew safety by monitoring river and weather conditions, closely.

The drought conditions that affect the Missouri River Basin will likely persist through winter and into spring, but CSRP biologists will be ready for whatever the weather brings.

January 2013: CSRP biologists traveled along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in search of usable boat ramps from which to launch their tracking boats. Pictured is a ramp located on the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau, MO.


January 2013: CSRP biologists traveled along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in search of usable boat ramps. Pictured is a ramp on the Mississippi River near Grand Tower, IL. The photographer is standing at the river’s edge, looking up the boat ramp, from far below where boats are normally launched.

Posted in Telemetry tracking |

Local Biology Club Visits The Columbia Environmental Research Center

Last month, the Columbia Environmental Research Center (CERC) hosted a tour for Hickman High School’s biology club.  Fifteen students from the high school located in Columbia, MO gathered at the CERC to learn about various research projects at the center and types of jobs available in fisheries science.  Scientists from the branches of toxicology, ecology, and river studies spoke to the group on an array of topics including fish behavior, invasive species, acoustic telemetry, and sediment toxicity.   In addition, students were able to discuss career options with ecologists, database managers, and research technicians.

Students from Hickman High School’s biology club ask questions during an educational tour at the Columbia Environmental Research Center (Columbia, MO). Photo by Terese Dishaw.



Biologists Hallie Ladd and Chad Vishy give a presentation about the comprehensive sturgeon research project to Hickman High School students.



Posted in Education |

Where The Girls Are

October proved to be a busy and successful month for USGS Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project biologists as four reproductive female pallid sturgeon were targeted and recaptured between river miles 359 and 599.  Using a portable ultrasound device, scientists were able to determine that all four females were at a 4/5 reproductive stage (see photo below), indicating that these fish will be ready to spawn during the spring of 2013.  Three of the reproductive females, PLS11-016, PLS11-017, and PLS11-018 were all initially implanted with telemetry devices in April of 2011.  All three females were located downstream of Bellevue, Nebraska during last month’s river sweep.  The fourth female, PLS08-035, was initially implanted in March of 2008 as a non-reproductive female.  PLS08-035 was last located upstream of Kansas City, KS in late October.  Biologists will continue to monitor the movements of these females with the hopes of documenting spawning behavior in the spring.  For more information on this year’s reproductive females, see previous post “Thinking Ahead”.

Pre-spawn ultrasound image of reproductive female pallid sturgeon PLS11-016: the green arrow points to a ripe egg in the side view of the fish’s abdominal cavity.



Posted in Reproductive Female, Telemetry tracking |