Towering bluffs, crystal clear water, feisty fish — this combination sets Ozark streams apart. The massive bluffs admired by floaters are often composed of dolomite, the rough, gray rock that makes up a major portion of the Ozark landscape. Streams in the Ozarks run cool and clear because of the many springs that sustain them, and as for the fish — well, the smallmouth bass may be one of the scrappiest around.
Fish Fossils in the Alps, the Origins of Dolomite
Dolomite gets its name from Deodat de Dolomieu, an 18th century French naturalist who hiked and investigated the Alps. High on the mountainsides, Dolomieu saw fossils of marine animals and wondered how they got there. One rock in particular — a dense stone used by ancient Greeks and Romans for columns and statues — caught his attention. He described it in a scientific paper, and in 1792 a colleague at the Academy of Sciences named it “dolomite” in his honor.
Dolomieu demonstrated that dolomie (now called dolomite or dolostone) was a carbonate rock similar to limestone but more difficult to dissolve in weak acid. The fossils he saw high in the Alps were clues to this rock’s origins. It formed from bits and pieces of marine animals (containing carbon) and limy mud that settled to the bottom of a warm and shallow ocean and, over millions of years, turned to solid rock.
Where the Water Runs so Cool and Clear
In the Ozarks, slightly acidic rainwater percolating through the soil has dissolved and widened cracks in the underlying carbonate bedrock to form a porous terrain called karst. Dolomite not only rises in scenic bluffs, it also hosts the large caves and springs that are hallmarks of karst topography. Springs are the primary source of flow to Ozark streams during dry weather and the main reason the water stays so cool and clear.
Clear streams provide exciting recreational opportunities. Floaters often bring along two pieces of equipment: a fishing pole and a diving mask. With one, they try to catch fish. With the other, they go below the surface and see the fish they aren’t catching. On hot afternoons, when fishing slows, anglers can simply wade into the spring-fed streams to cool off. With masks on, however, they can fully submerge and explore the underwater world. They can swim through the transparent water and pass over gravel studded here and there with dark chunks of dolomite, fallen from the bluffs above.
The Eye of the Smallmouth
Sometimes smallmouth bass can be found lurking in the shadows of the dolomite. They sit quietly around andunder the dolomite boulders with their mouths gaping and gill covers flaring. Occasionally, these fish allow people to get surprisingly close — enough for one to look into their eyes, which, although expressionless, also seem ancient and knowing, as though they could see into some dim recess of the past. These large eyes, however, serve practical purposes. Smallmouth bass are primarily sight-feeders. Clear water, like that found in Ozark streams, is their preferred habitat.
Surprisingly, this fish, whose scientific name is Micropterus dolomieui, is also named for Monsieur Dolomieu. It is a fitting tribute since both man and fish are (or were) tenacious and scrappy. At the age of 18, Dolomieu killed another young man in a sword duel, which landed him in prison for several months. In 1798, he served as a scientist on Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt. His ship sank off the coast of Italy, and he struggled to shore only to be captured and imprisoned again, this time in Naples. Other scientists, even from countries at war with France, protested this rough treatment of a distinguished naturalist. Dolomieu’s friends at the Academy of Sciences finally came to the rescue and secured his release.
In 1802, another Frenchman, Bernard Germain de Lacepede, examined a fish specimen brought overseas and from America. Lacepede worked at a biological institute in Paris, where he described and classified newly discovered species of fish and reptiles. From its long travels and rough handling, the American specimen’s dorsal fin arrived damaged. Lacepede mistakenly applied the generic name Micropterus (meaning “small fin”) and affixed the specific name dolomieui, most likely to honor his fellow countryman and colleague who had died the year before of a lung disease probably contracted during his two years spent in the dank Naples prison.
Putting It Into Ecological Context
Because of their vigor and fighting spirit, smallmouth bass have since been introduced to environments around the world. Ozark streams, however, are part of their original North American range, their ancestral home. Smallmouth and dolomite, although named for the same man, are largely opposites. One is lifeless, the other zestful; one is hard and immobile, the other a sleek study in motion. What they share, however, is greater than a namesake: both have been around for millions of years and contributed to the formation of a stable ecological context for Ozark streams. In significant ways, they define the Ozark streams. Though he is not alive to appreciate it, Dolomieu’s name is attached, to this day, to important and durable parts of nature.
Missouri has 110,000 miles of streams that provide recreation, water, and serenity, but they need your help. Join a Stream Team today and do your part. Stream Teams are made up of people with an interest and a passion for Missouri streams. Exploring the Stream Team website, mostreamteam.org, will show you how citizens have adopted a stream, volunteered their own time and effort to improve it, and have banded together with other Stream Teams to help improve Missouri’s streams.
Exploring Missouri Streams
Floating Missouri’s streams is a fantastic way to enjoy our state’s great outdoors. Whether your passion is angling for smallmouth or rock bass, keeping an eye out for elusive wildlife, or simply drifting downstream with the current, a day on the river will lift your spirit. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/17947 for a map of boat ramps in Missouri, floating events, and much more. The Department also offers an online field guide at mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to help you identify Missouri’s plants, animals, and mushrooms along the way.