A duty to inform the public is one of the most important aspects of being a journalist. My entire existence a huge story has been right under my nose, and I have failed to notice it. This is my chance to tell you the story of a small, cave-dweller who is depending on us for its survival.
I have lived within the city limits of Perryville, Mo., for the bulk of my life. Perryville is located in the southeast corner of Missouri. With a population of 8,225 people, Perryville has been called a “manufacturing oasis” by Forbes.com, and markets itself as “a Missouri community with pride.” Perryville and Perry County, in general, are not only my home, but also the only home to the grotto sculpin, a rare species of fish.
Before diving into the background of this rare fish, it is important to know a little bit more about Perry County’s geography.
Missouri, commonly known as the Show-Me State, is also known as “the cave state” due to its more than 6,300 recorded caves. This number continues to grow yearly.
According to “The Geologic Column of Missouri,” published by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Perry County contains the most caves of any county in the state, with more than 675 caves, all which are within a narrow strip of land between interstate 55 and the Mississippi River. Most of these caves are small pits and sinkholes scattered throughout the county, though several larger, deeper caves collect water funneled through sinkholes. Four of the five longest caves in the state are made of these deeper, active cave systems, including Missouri’s longest, Crevice Cave, which is more than 29 miles long.
Now that you understand how cavernous Perry County is, we can focus more on the fish itself. Grotto sculpins, which cave biologists refer to as “Perryville cave planarian,” inhabit six cave systems in Perry County. The Missouri Department of Conservation said all species of sculpin have flattened bodies, large mouths and enlarged pectoral fins. Their bodies are slender compared to their large heads, and they have no scales. The grotto sculpin, in particular, has smaller eyes and paler bodies than most of its cousins. They are light to bleached tan in color with unpigmented underparts. These features, which distinguish them from the regular banded sculpin, also make them perfect for cave life.
Adult grotto sculpins are 2.5 to 4 inches. Due to their large mouths, sculpins as a group are able to swallow prey nearly as large as themselves, including other sculpins. Since this species is found only in caves, they often eat cave isopods and amphipods, cave crayfish, bug-like creatures and small fish.
A recent study suggests that young grotto sculpins spend their first season outside of caves at “resurgence sites” in order to grow more quickly and avoid being eaten by larger relatives.
Why are these fish important to us? Not many people fish for leisure in caves, and a 4-inch fried sculpin fish is hardly a snack. The grotto sculpin is important because it is a sign of reassurance. These fish indicate a clean environment, because without a clean environment they cannot thrive. Knowing that they are alive and reproducing shows southeast Missourians that their groundwater supplies are healthy.
Happy healthy fish, equals happy healthy water, which in turn means happy healthy people, right? If only that were the case.
Genetic testing is currently being conducted to determine whether or not the grotto sculpin is indeed different enough from the regular banded sculpin to deserve a scientific name of its own. There is no doubt, however that this is a rare fish with a small distribution. No matter what you call this fish, it is in danger of extinction. Its limited geographic range leaves the grotto sculpin vulnerable. One catastrophe could wipe them out completely, which has led to the grotto sculpin becoming a candidate under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
The limestone caves in Perry County, also known as karsts, are unique due to their numerous sinkholes. These sinkholes allow chemicals and runoff pollutants to reach groundwater without being filtered.
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, this pollution is the largest threat to the grotto sculpin. Despite the fact it is illegal to dump waste in open sites in Missouri, many sinkholes in Perry County are being used as dump sites — waste from households, sewage, tires, dead livestock and pesticides have all been found in sinkholes.
So we list the fish as endangered, get some government funding, save the fish and all live happily ever after, right? Although the grotto sculpin is a candidate for addition to the Endangered Species Act, it has been a candidate for listing for more than 10 years now. It was only on Sept. 26 of this year that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would propose to list the grotto sculpin as “endangered.”
A public meeting was held Tuesday, Oct. 30, at the High Education Center in Perryville to inform citizens of Perry County about this fish. The only way to find a “happily ever after” for this fish is to educate the citizens that affect it. Neglecting to educate the public could lead to the destruction of this fish and the loss of a unique part of Perry County.
Journalism is the pursuit and, more importantly, distribution of knowledge. In a world where information is clicks away, I challenge you to look at stories lying right under your noses. Educate yourself in every possible way, and especially educate yourself about your disappearing neighbor, the grotto sculpin.