The Topeka shiner only grows to about 3 inches long, and it looks a lot like the minnows sold at any self-respecting bait shop in eastern Kansas.
But Kansas University researchers have become among the foremost champions in the world for saving the rapidly disappearing species. They say, ultimately, the human race depends on it.
"This is important business," Jerry deNoyelles, deputy director of the Kansas Biological Survey, said Wednesday to a group of students from across the country who were viewing a shiner restoration project in rural Lawrence. "Saving the shiner is obviously just one piece of a larger battle.
"I hate to talk about it in these terms, but survival of the Earth ultimately depends on this stuff."
No one will be able to say KU isn't doing its part, at least when it comes to the Topeka shiner. Since 2001, the biological survey - through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks - has become the leading research authority in the world on the Topeka shiner.
On property northeast of the Lawrence Municipal Airport, the biological survey has 77 ponds - each a tenth of an acre in size - where researchers breed and study the species.
The small fish once was found in many prairie streams and rivers throughout Kansas, Iowa and parts of Nebraska, Missouri and South Dakota. Today, the chubby minnow - most distinguishable by its dark side stripes and a V-like spot on its tail - only can be found in the headwaters of a few streams, including the source area of the Kansas River near Manhattan.
KU researchers hope to help change that. In 2002, the KU project had a total of 300 shiners. Today, it has about 20,000.
That's good news for the fish because the shiner's numbers had taken a beating over the years. DeNoyelles said the species had lost about 80 percent of its population levels during the last 200 years and can be found in about 20 percent of the places it once inhabited.
"It is clearly on track to disappear," deNoyelles said.
But so what? After all, the shiner really does look like something you'd expect to find in a bait bucket.
As deNoyelles told students Wednesday, there's a simple reason why everyone should care: It's the principle that in nature you can never do just one thing.
In other words, if the shiner disappears, that will make it harder for another species - plant or animal - to survive, and then the extinction of that species will make it harder for another species to survive, and the process just continues to repeat itself.
"What I tell people is that the Earth cannot indefinitely keep losing species," said deNoyelles, who also is a professor in KU's department of ecology and evolutionary biology. "You know, we don't get our oxygen from outer space. We get it from plants. If you let one species go, and then let another one go, and another, when do you reach the point that you've let too many go?
"What I'm telling you is that we're letting an awful lot go these days."
Eight students in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates national program toured the biological survey site. Several said deNoyelles' message struck a chord.
"I can definitely see how some people would say it is just a small fish, so who cares?" said Eva Carpenter, a Columbia University student who will be at KU for 10 weeks this summer as part of the program. "But then you hear the big picture and realize in a way it does impact humans.
"The only way we're going to make meaningful changes to the environment is really to make it a selfish cause. People have to understand how it impacts humans."
Saving the Shiner
Here's how Kansas University researchers explain what's causing the decline of the Topeka shiner. ¢ The Kansas Biological Survey operates 77 ponds that allow researchers to create multiple types of environments for the fish. Survey staff members use underwater video equipment to view the activities of the shiners, especially during the critical summer spawning period. ¢ Researchers change the pond environments in several ways. Those include controlling the amount of gravel on the bottom of the pond, adding largemouth bass to serve as predators and adjusting the density of fish in a pond. ¢ Among the major findings of the program is that Topeka shiners use the nests of sunfish to lay their eggs. The sunfish, which most often nest along gravel bottoms, inadvertently protect the young shiners while also protecting their young sunfish. The research also has found that shiners almost exclusively live in the headwater regions of streams and rivers. ¢ Causes for the decline in Topeka shiner populations remain uncertain. Researchers, though, said soil erosion - both from agricultural and natural means - could be causing some gravel bottoms to become covered in silt. Prolonged periods of drought also could be particularly problematic for Topeka shiners. Increased regulation of headwater areas of streams and rivers could be a way to help protect Topeka shiners.