Icthyology's Golden Age

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

of the region's wild quality remained intact. The researchers traveled across some of the state's most punishing terrain by horseback and with wagons laden with specimen jars and other equipment.

Then consider the scientific timeline. In 1884, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species had been in print just 25 years and was clearly reshaping views of the natural world. Much of America's flora and fauna remained uncataloged, even though naturalists and scientists had toiled for decades naming and classifying everything from fish to finches.

That's one reason why the 25 years leading up to 1900 have been called the golden age of descriptive ichthyology in the United States. Scientists knew that multitudes of fish lived in rivers like the Gasconade and Niangua. But many of the individual species were yet to be discovered, named and classified. Jordan and his many followers dedicated themselves to closing that gap.

It was such work that brought Meek, Gilbert and Jordan to Missouri. They often would spend their summer breaks from the academic world engaged in field research for the United States Fish Commission or the U.S. National Museum. Gilbert and Meek, both then just in their mid 20s, ventured across southwest Missouri in the summer of 1884. During this trip they discovered the bluestripe darter and Niangua darter.

That same summer Meek and Jordan traveled north to study the 102 and Missouri rivers, Tabo Creek near Lexington and tributaries of the Lamine River. They netted a small minnow that was then abundant in the Missouri near St. Joseph. It was slender, with small eyes and sickle-shaped pectoral fins.

Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann, another of his colleagues, eventually determined it to be a new species. Their scientific name for it was Macrhybopsis meeki in honor of Meek, but the fish's anatomy inspired its common name, the sicklefin chub. Today, it is rare in the state and is a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Meek returned with two students in July and August of 1889 to survey streams in Missouri and Arkansas. Meek's records provide a glimpse into their work and travels. In just 16 days on the Missouri leg of the trip, they collected fish in 18 streams across the basins of the Meramec, Gasconade, Osage, Neosho (a Kansas stream with Missouri tributaries) and White rivers.

Their zigzag route took them from St. Louis through or near St. James, Rolla, Dixon, Marshfield, Neosho and Springfield before their final stops on the Big Piney and North Fork rivers near Cabool. It was on this trip that they discovered the yoke darter in the James River and the Ozark shiner in the North Fork. Meek generously named the yoke darter Etheostoma juliae for Julia Gilbert, his colleague's wife.

Meek's records also provide a number of personal observations. He found the Niangua "quite remarkable for the bright colors of its minnows and darters." By contrast, he seemed disappointed after visiting the Big Piney near Cabool. "Fish are apparently scarce in this stream," he wrote in an account published in the Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission. "The scarcity is in some measure due to the presence of gristmills and sawmills, which discharge refuse into the stream, and to the use of dynamite (to kill fish)." He also reported that it was common near Newburg and Neosho for dynamite to be used in a similar fashion.

Meek called attention to the rugged terrain and bluffs along the North Fork of the White River south of Cabool. "The country is also heavily timbered and as yet sparsely settled," his account reads. "The stream has a rocky bottom and flows with a considerable current."

Considerable current indeed. "These men were out seining in the White River basin before any dams were built so you can imagine the conditions," explains Henry Robison of Southern Arkansas University.

Meek, Gilbert and Jordan's accounts of their explorations of Missouri and Arkansas are in a sober and methodical scientific language. They convey little sense of the excitement and awe they must have felt. After all, these were accomplished scientists who lived to discover and push out the bounds of our knowledge of the watery world of darters and shiners.

And here was a place where every flash of color darting through a riffle held out the prospect of discovery and acclaim. That prospect drew Seth Meek to Missouri no less than three times and into Arkansas many more than that. And he must have been more than a little amazed at what he saw when he gazed into the water here. Why else would he have returned again and again?

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