Icthyology's Golden Age

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Two biologists peered down into the seine that was now writhing with fish pulled from the waters of the Big Niangua River. It was the summer of 1884 and they were standing in the headwaters of the river near Marshfield.

The pair netted many smallish fish familiar to their trained eyes, but one, no longer than an index finger, held their attention with its unusual markings and bright flashes of color. Its distinguishing marks included a series of prominent dark brown cross bars running along its body. A narrow orange streak so perfectly tinged the edge of its dorsal fin that it might have been painted by an artist.

The scientists, Seth Meek and Charles Gilbert, had discovered a new species of fish. They named it Etheostoma nianguae. Today we know it as the Niangua darter, a now federally threatened fish found nowhere else but in streams in the Osage River basin. The pair's scientific expedition across the Ozarks that summer and other work vastly expanded our knowledge of the richly varied aquatic life in Missouri's streams.

Collaborating with them was David Starr Jordan, a colleague known as the father of American ichthyology. The three discovered and named as new species Missouri's sicklefin chub, Ozark shiner, Niangua darter, bluestripe darter and yoke darter. Between them they also had a hand in discovering another 20 or so new species that initially were found in other states but also lived in Missouri.

In addition, Meek collected dozens of types of fish around the state. Many were species already known to science, but his yeoman's work served to confirm their existence and, in part, their range in the state. This endeavor also helped establish another important fact: Missouri harbors one of the richest native fish faunas of any state. While Gilbert and Jordan were far bigger names in scientific circles, Meek's work here stands out. He was "the single biggest contributor to knowledge of Missouri fishes before 1900," according to William L. Pflieger, retired Conservation Department ichthyologist and author of The Fishes of Missouri. Echoing that sentiment is Henry W. Robison, professor of biology at Southern Arkansas University and co-author of Fishes of Arkansas.

Seth Meek seemed destined to spend his life peering into the waters of one river or another. He was born in 1859 in Hicksville, a small town in far northwest Ohio. His birthplace falls squarely between the St. Joseph River and the northeasterly course of the Maumee River on its way to Lake Erie.

Rivers and the teeming life they sustain captivated him. He wasn't far into his studies at Indiana University when he became fascinated with ichthyology, the branch of zoology dealing with fish. It appears that it was at Indiana University where the lives of the three scientists converged. Meek and Gilbert were students there when Jordan served as head of the department of natural science.

Jordan was the dominant figure of his day in the study of fish. He was a large man best remembered for his intellect, drive and keen memory and for the sheer force of his personality. The New York native also possessed an uncanny knack for distinguishing similar looking species of fish. This talent was surely an advantage in the study of Missouri's many darters and other fish.

He was a prolific researcher, generating well over 600 publications-single scientific papers to weighty texts-about fish over the span of half a century. Scientific folklore has it that Jordan dictated from memory most of his two-volume Guide to the Study of Fishes-all while serving as president of Stanford University.

Jordan and Gilbert published a 1,000-page volume on the fish of North America. Jordan went on to co-author The Fishes of North and Middle America, which was based on his work and that of his many associates. This undertaking was so great that its 3,000 pages were published in a series of four volumes from 1896 to 1900.

Jordan had scores of students and scientific associates, including Meek, but Gilbert was for many years his chief collaborator. A native of Illinois, he complemented Jordan with his preciseness and critical thinking. In time, Jordan would entice Gilbert out west to Stanford University, where he would head up the zoology department.

After his work in Missouri, Meek took a position as professor of biology and geology at Arkansas Industrial University (University of Arkansas). He went on to become assistant curator of zoology at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, a post he held until his death in 1914.

To truly appreciate their contributions, you must flip back the pages in the annals of history and science. Publication dates for their scientific papers place the three together or separately in Missouri from about 1884 to 1889. Settlers had by then spread over a large portion of the Missouri Ozarks, where the biologists did most of their research, but much 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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