By Kimberly Chojnacki and Aaron DeLonay
In mid-June, 4 USGS research crews from the Lower Missouri River packed up their equipment and headed north to the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in Montana (figure 1). Two boats and crews were deployed to help track the migration behavior of large, fast moving, adult pallid sturgeon up the Yellowstone River, and to determine when and where they are spawning (figure 2). Another boat and crew carried advanced sonar equipment to observe and record spawning behavior. And a hydrology research crew was deployed to characterize habitat at spawning sites. The crews drove two days from Columbia, Missouri to Sidney, Montana where they joined biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) and researcher, Pat Braaten, from the USGS Project Office in Fort Peck, Montana. Pat and his colleagues from MFWP have been tracking adult pallid sturgeon on the upper Missouri River from Lake Sakakawea upstream to Fort Peck Dam, and up the Yellowstone River to Intake Dam (figure 1).
Figure 1. Map of the Upper Missouri River and Yellowstone River study area.
The large rivers used by pallid sturgeon have been modified and altered to meet human needs, including flood control, irrigation, navigation, hydropower, and recreation. The Upper Missouri and Yellowstone rivers are unique within the range of the pallid sturgeon in that the morphology of their channels has not been significantly altered and the Yellowstone still retains a natural hydrograph and temperature regime unaltered by large dams. Scientists hope that by observing and comparing the behavior of pallid sturgeon in different parts of its range, they can gain insight into how sturgeon migration, spawning, and recruitment may be altered in response to different threats.
Figure 2. A USGS Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project telemetry crew tracks radio telemetered pallid sturgeon in Montana.
By Aaron DeLonay, Amy George, and Kimberly Chojnacki
Rows of hatching jars lined the shelves in the laboratory at USGS this spring and summer. In each jar, pallid sturgeon and shovelnose sturgeon gently tumbled in the 18 °C water as USGS scientists closely monitored and documented fish development. The eggs came from a captive population of pallid sturgeon adults held at the Center for research purposes and from shovelnose sturgeon adults captured from the Lower Missouri River. Four pallid sturgeon and ten shovelnose sturgeon females were induced to spawn using hormone injections in the laboratory. The eggs were fertilized by multiple males of the corresponding species and each family lot was placed in separate jars to develop and hatch. Scientists monitored each group of eggs for fertilization, development, and survival to hatch. After hatch, three to six sturgeon were removed and preserved in formalin at 2-4 hour intervals around the clock to document the rapid growth and developmental changes that occur during this early life stage. Free embryos hatch without a well-developed mouth, eyes or fins, and must rely a large yolk sac to fuel their rapid development (figure 1). At 18° C, the development from newly hatched free embryo to exogenously feeding larvae takes about 14 days for both species. Although their abilities are limited, sturgeon are capable of changing their depth and orienting to water flow even before the initiation of feeding. Once the larvae began feeding, behavioral and developmental changes are not as rapid and samples were taken every 12 hours. At this stage, they have fins, eyes, a mouth bordered by four fleshy barbels, and resemble sturgeon in miniature. Scientists at USGS closely examined the timing and trajectory of developmental changes to better estimate where sturgeon free embryos collected by our crews in the Missouri River may have been spawned, how early life stages of sturgeon disperse along the river, and where habitats needed for early feeding may be located. Differences in developmental timing, behavior, and requirements between species may provide insight into why one species, the shovelnose sturgeon, is reproducing and recruiting, while the pallid sturgeon is not.
Figure 1. Pallid sturgeon free embryos preserved at 3 days post hatch. Free embryos at this stage have only a rudimentary mouth, their pectoral fins are only beginning to develop, and they rely on a large yolk sac for food.
By Kimberly Chojnacki and Aaron DeLonay
The scientists of the Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) have known that pallid sturgeon are quite capable of travelling long distances (see previous post “Long Distance Runner”). Occasionally, we are reminded of the incredible journeys on which these remarkable fish often embark. One such example is the chronicle of male pallid sturgeon PLS10-014. Since spring 2010, PLS10-014 has covered more than 1200 river miles (Figure 1) spanning across four states. This male fish was initially tagged in the Missouri River in Nebraska near river mile 620, about 25 miles upstream of the Platte River confluence in late April 2010. He remained within approximately 25 miles of this location until that summer when he began to move downstream, continuing through the following spring. A year later, in April 2011 he was located at the confluence of the Osage and Missouri Rivers near river mile 130. By August 2011 he was located more than 100 miles further downstream near river mile 10 in the Missouri River (near St. Louis, Missouri). Between March 2012 and September 2013, PLS10-014 changed direction and moved back upstream. Over the next 18 months he was relocated numerous times between river miles 80 and 230. In the late fall of 2013 something changed and PLS10-014 began moving rapidly back upstream to where he was first captured and tagged near river mile 620. Scientists were curious. Was he making an early start back to a spawning location for spring 2014? In early May of 2014 tracking crews located him near river mile 610 and shortly thereafter he was making his way up the Platte River (see previous post “Pallids in the Platte”). Some pallid sturgeon are fairly sedentary and spend long periods in the same locale, while others go off on long journeys, sometimes returning to very nearly the exact location. Why do sturgeon undertake such extensive movements and how do they recognize specific places in the deep, muddy Missouri River? CSRP scientists are using long-term tracking data to try to answer these questions.
Figure 1. Map of telemetry locations for male pallid sturgeon PLS10-014 since spring 2010.
By Kimberly Chojnacki, Justin Haas (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission), and Aaron DeLonay
Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) scientists have documented that some tributaries may have significant value to the endangered pallid sturgeon (see previous posts “Where Are You When I’m Not Looking”, and “A Fork in the Road”). The spring of 2014 is providing additional insights for collaborating Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Geological Survey research crews. From late April through May, four telemetered pallid sturgeon were found in the Platte River, two males and two females. The two male pallid sturgeon were located between 1 and 5 miles upstream in the Platte River during late May (Figure 1).
Female PLS10-29 was recaptured during the fall of 2013 and determined to be likely to spawn during the spring of 2014. She stayed in the Missouri River through mid-April before moving into the Platte River. During late April and early May PLS10-029 was located one to two miles up the Platte River and has since gone missing (Figure 1). Scientists believed that female pallid sturgeon PLS11-015 should also have been ready to spawn this spring, but she swam upstream into the Platte River before she could be captured and assessed. Since entering the tributary mouth she has been located on three occasions in the Platte River; the last time more than 30 miles upstream, near its confluence with the Elk Horn River, during late May (Figure 1). Both of the female pallid sturgeon that were found in the Platte River this spring are believed to have previously spawned there during 2011 (PLS11-015) and 2012 (PLS10-029). The Platte River is very difficult for fish tracking using acoustic telemetry tags because it is very shallow with braided sandbar complexes, so it is not uncommon to lose track of the tagged fish. Luckily, scientists have another way to determine whether they have spawned in the Platte River. CSRP scientists will attempt to recapture both of the females as soon as they emerge from the Platte River to determine if they have released their eggs and to recover the data storage tag that records temperature and depth data to find out (see previous post “Where Are You When I’m Not Looking”). In 2011, the temperature and depth data provided indirect, but strong, evidence that the fish had spawning in the Platte River. From these long-term tracking datasets, scientists have learned that female pallid sturgeon in the Lower Missouri River can spawn every 2 to 3 years, and that females attempting to spawn in the Platte River will return to the Platte River on subsequent spawning migrations.
Figure 1. Map of telemetry locations for pallid sturgeon PLS08-039, PLS10-014, PLS10-029, PLS11-005 during April and May 2014.
Pallid sturgeon exist almost exclusively in habitats that are notoriously difficult to study. Particularly due to river flow and turbidity, there are many aspects of sturgeon behavior which scientists struggle to observe and truly understand. One such behavior which Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) scientists are currently working to understand better is the tendencies, habits, and mechanics of egg deposition and fertilization. Despite being able to track pallid sturgeon and occasionally identify spawning locations, spawning behaviors in the wild have yet to be thoroughly documented.
Figure 1. The substrate and configuration of the CERC’s sturgeon study pond are shown. The “T” configuration of the gravel simulates gravel substrate lying parallel and perpendicular to the bank. The center wall facilitates current and the “H” frame shown is mounted with a DIDSON imaging sonar to observe fish behaviors.
Scientists reproduced sturgeon spawning habitat in a controlled environment at the Columbia Environmental Research Center (see Figure 1) in an attempt to study spawning and egg deposition up close. Water circulators set up within a 90×65 feet pond simulated the river current while gravel bars arranged both parallel and perpendicular to the pond banks simulated the two reproductive substrate arrangements believed to be utilized in the wild. An acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) (see Figure 2) created a three dimensional profile of the pond’s currents (see Figure 3) prior to fish introduction and a DIDSON imaging sonar was employed to visually monitor the behavior of the fish over the course of the study. Before being released into the pond, reproductively-ready sturgeon were injected with hormones to induce ovulation in females or sperm production in the males. If all goes as it should females induced with hormones should ovulate and deposit their eggs within 12 to 24 hours of the final injection and release into the pond.
Figure 2. A River Ray aDcp deployed on a catamaran is shown mapping the CERC sturgeon study pond’s water currents prior to the introduction of sturgeon.
Figure 3. A cross section of the CERC sturgeon study pond’s water velocities is shown as mapped by an aDcp. The darker colors on the left side of the scale represent slower current velocities while the lighter colors on the right side of the scale represent faster current velocities.
The initial trial was conducted with shovelnose sturgeon. Subsequent trials will be conducted with pallid sturgeon. The reproductive physiology of both species is very similar, and the mechanisms of ovulation and egg deposition are likely similar as well. While shovelnose sturgeon may not have the same spawning behaviors or prefer the same spawning habitat as pallid sturgeon, the two species are known to hybridize where habitat has been highly modified. It is believed a better understanding of spawning behaviors will translate to a better understanding of habitat requirements for spawning adults and factors that may reduce the threat of hybridization.
Completed with contributions from Aaron DeLonay and Robert Jacobson
Each spring biologists and volunteers from State and Federal agencies cooperate to collect adult pallid sturgeon from the Lower Missouri River for hatchery propagation. Offices from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks send boats out to collect pallid sturgeon using trotlines and gillnets. The numbers of adults collected each year varies with the weather, river conditions, and luck. Captured pallid sturgeon are transported by special tank trucks to one of the participating fish hatcheries, including the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Blind Pony Fish Hatchery, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Gavins Point or Neosho National Fish Hatcheries. As the biologists on the river doing the collection are unable to discern reproductive fish from non-reproductive fish, all pallid sturgeon greater than 850 mm (33.5 inches) are taken to a fish hatchery to have their reproductive readiness assessed by USGS biologists using ultrasound and endoscopy. Fish that not reproductively ready are released back into the river as soon as possible, while those that are ready to spawn are held until conditions are right.
Missouri Department of Conservation hatchery personnel look on as Aaron DeLonay, USGS sturgeon biologist, surgically implants a pallid sturgeon with a telemetry tag.
When fish are no longer of use to the hatcheries, they are often taken by USGS scientists and implanted with transmitters and data storage tags immediately before release. This is an efficient way to increase the number of tracked sturgeon with known reproductive status and histories. Greater numbers of sturgeon tracked provide a better opportunity to learn how well sturgeon are growing in the river and how often sturgeon reproduce. Between April 30th and May 2nd, 21 pallid sturgeon captured during broodstock collection efforts were turned over to USGS biologists for surgical implantation of transmitters and data storage tags. Four other fish already had transmitters when they were captured for in the broodstock effort. These sturgeon were reimplanted with new tags. All fish were transported back to the river and released where they were initially caught. In the past year, 59 pallid sturgeon were tracked downstream of Gavins Point Dam in the Missouri and Platte rivers. We hope that with increased numbers of fish being tracked, patterns of habitat use and reproductive behavior may become more apparent.
With contributions from Aaron DeLonay and Robert Jacobson
On May 7th, the CSRP sampling crew on the Missouri River in Nebraska reported the first free embryo capture of the season. Crews equipped with fine mesh nets have been sampling the Missouri and Platte Rivers for drifting embryos since April 15th in an effort to identify when and where sturgeon and paddlefish spawning naturally occurs (see, We’ve Only Just Begun). Newly hatched sturgeon and paddlefish embryos are nearly indistinguishable, and it is unknown yet which species has been captured. That distinction will be made using a microscope in the laboratory when the samples are returned to the Columbia Environmental Research Center at the end of the week. Temperatures at the sampling location (14.5 degrees Celsius) were below temperatures where most sturgeon spawning occurs (16-22 degrees Celsius). Based upon experience from previous years, it is likely that the free embryo captured is a paddlefish. Paddlefish often spawn earlier and at cooler temperatures than shovelnose sturgeon or pallid sturgeon. With no previous captures in the first three weeks of the sampling season, this signifies the first tangible confirmation that the spawning season in the Lower Missouri River above the Platte River is underway.
With contributions from Aaron DeLonay
Figure 1. A paddlefish or sturgeon embryo captured May 7th during larval sampling of the Lower Missouri River.
By Casey Hickcox and Aaron DeLonay
Each spring CSRP biologists evaluate their list of tagged fish and search the river for pallid sturgeon that are expected to spawn. Because sturgeon do not reproduce every year there can be considerable variation in the numbers of tagged fish that are expected to spawn each year. This year there are very few fish with telemetry tags downstream of Kansas City. Currently, biologists believe there may be only one tagged reproductive female pallid sturgeon in the lower study section from the Kansas River confluence downstream to the mouth of the Missouri River. This fish, pallid sturgeon PLS11-005, was last located on March 26 near river mile 244 and has since gone undetected. With spawning season quickly approaching, the question of where PLS11-005 is and whether or not she is going to spawn this season was becoming critical.
In an effort to locate PLS11-005, two USGS tracking boats searched approximately 75 miles on April 21st between Kansas City and Waverly, Missouri (Figure 1). The area being searched had been identified based on the fish’s last known location. Previous searches above and below the target area came up empty. When an important tagged fish, like PLS11-005 goes missing it can be difficult to relocate. Pallid sturgeon are mobile and can migrate more than twelve miles a day in the Lower Missouri River. Tracking crews must search quickly, but carefully. On any given day a missing sturgeon, like PLS11-005 could be located behind a river-training structure or sandbar capable of masking her telemetry signal, or she could have moved into a previously searched area and could go undetected that day. These are just some of the many challenges facing scientists trying to track and understand these rare and elusive fish using acoustic telemetry (see previous post, “Can You Hear Me Now.”)
Figure 1. Map of telemetry locations for female pallid sturgeon PLS11-005 and search efforts during April 2014.
On this day, she would indeed go undetected. After 6 hours of searching with two different boats, only one tagged fish (a male located near river mile 344) was located. An attempt by another boat on the following day also failed to locate PLS11-005 downstream of Waverly. While biologists work to locate her, boats continue to track other tagged pallid sturgeon, including three reproductive females in the upper study section downstream of Gavins Point Dam.
After a long, cold winter, the Redbud and Dogwood trees are blooming and water temperatures are rising (Figure 1). Spring seems to have finally sprung, and fish, and hopefully the endangered pallid sturgeon among them, will soon be spawning. In an effort to better understand pallid sturgeon spawning, fertilization, hatch, and dispersal, Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) biologists initiated weekly sampling efforts for Acipenseriformes (sturgeon and paddlefish) free embryos on April 15. The work is occurring at two sites in Nebraska; one upstream of the confluence of the Missouri and Platte rivers (near river mile 600) and the other is located less than one mile up the Platte River.
Figure 1. Temperature and discharge of the Missouri River at U.S. Geological Survey streamgage 06601200 Decatur, Nebraska.
In order to sample the swift waters for Acipenseriformes free embryos, CSRP researchers deploy a pair of very fine, cone shaped ichthyoplankton sampling nets attached to 100 pound lead weights into the water column using winches mounted to each side of an anchored boat. The nets filter water through a 0.5 meter opening and the drifting embryos are captured by the nets. The nets must be made with a very fine mesh (0.75 mm) to prevent the small tadpole-like larvae (7-8 mm) from slipping through.
The sampling nets are simultaneously brought back up (Figure 2) to the surface after a set period of time (5 to 15 minutes, depending on the debris load suspended in the water column). The contents of the sapling nets are emptied into pans, where Acipenseriformes free embyros are hand-picked from the debris. Recently hatched sturgeon and paddlefish free embryos are too small and similar to differentiate, so they are preserved in alcohol and returned to the laboratory where they will be identified to genus using a microscope. Sturgeon specimens will be sent to a genetics laboratory to determine if they are shovelnose sturgeon, or if we are very lucky, the endangered pallid sturgeon. We haven’t caught any Acipenseriformes free embryos to date (April 30), but spawning season is just beginning.
Figure 2. Biologists sample the water column of the Missouri and Platte Rivers to collect sturgeon or paddlefish free embryos).
With contributions by Aaron DeLonay
In the late fall or at the end of winter of previous seasons, Comprehensive Sturgeon Research Project (CSRP) biologists would send boats out into the field to seek out a few, rare pallid sturgeon females to implant with transmitters in hopes of tracking them to their spawning locations. This has been our dominant approach to characterizing where and when spawning is occurring. Beginning in 2014 the project focus has shifted slightly towards longer-term science objectives. In addition to tracking reproductive females, biologists are also emphasizing recapturing and retagging as many telemetered pallid sturgeon as possible to reimplant them with tags and fresh batteries in hopes of maintaining a population of tagged pallid sturgeon that can be monitored through several reproductive cycles. Biologists also hope to increase the number of tagged males in the study population to help identify possible aggregation areas and to answer the long-standing question of which sex ultimately chooses where spawning occurs.
Since recapture efforts began in the fall of 2013, CSRP crews have recaptured more than 15 telemetered pallid sturgeon and identified three females (PLS11-019, PLS10-029, and PLS12-002) and one male (PLS10-032) pallid sturgeon nearing spawning condition. Each of these fish has a long history with the CSRP and researchers will be particularly interested in their movements and behavior. At the end of April, more than two dozen additional pallid sturgeon collected during the annual pallid sturgeon broodstock collection efforts will be implanted with transmitters and added to the study population. During 2014, telemetry studies of habitat use and spawning will be augmented by laboratory studies of spawning, egg hatch, and free embryo dispersal to examine further the factors that may be limiting survival and recruitment of young sturgeon in the river.
With contribution from Aaron DeLonay
CSRP Biologist Sabrina Davenport prepares to release a reproductive feamle pallid sturgeon.