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Topeka Shiner

Post-2012 Drought Recolonization Survey in Iowa

By Aleshia Kenney and Kristen Lundh (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Rock Island Field Office)



Biologists sampling a restored oxbow in Iowa to find out the fish species present and their densities.

Photo by USFWS; Aleshia Kenney


Initial Survey Results

We sampled 15 restored oxbows and found Topeka shiners in 10 of them.  The 10 oxbows where we found Topeka shiners were either very near the mouth of the North Raccoon River or near a gravel pit, and we don’t believe that’s a coincidence.  The gravel pits, because of their depth and ability to hold water during extended dry periods, may provide refuges during drought.  It is likely that spring flooding dispersed fish from these pits into the river main channel and adjacent floodplain, including into our restored oxbow ponds.


We were impressed and heartened that following the first flood after a drought, we were able to find Topeka shiners in 70% of the off-channel areas we checked. However, numbers appear to be substantially down. In 2009, we sampled 10 oxbows and found 754 Topeka shiners, whereas, in 2013 we sampled 15 oxbows and found 80 Topeka shiners.


The diversity and numbers of other fish using these oxbows is impressive, especially considering they and adjacent tributaries were dry last summer. Over three days of sampling, we collected over 15,000 fish of 24 different species, and that is not counting all of the young of the year spawn! We found 80 Topeka shiners (17 males and 63 females). The oxbows were full of turtles, amphibians, insects and crayfish.


After one of the worst droughts in the state’s history struck Iowa in 2011 and 2012, we conducted surveys in July 2013 to help determine the effect of the drought on the endangered Topeka shiner.


During last summer's drought (2012), miles of streams designated as Critical Habitat for the Topeka shiner went completely dry.  Entire watersheds became so devoid of water that not even intermittent puddles existed.  Most tributary streams were completely dry, leaving only the main rivers, nearby gravel pits and seemingly random pools (e.g., under bridges and plunge pools below structures) as possible sources of available water. 


Survey Proposal

We restored more than 50 oxbows within the North Raccoon River watershed to provide habitat for Topeka shiners, and we know that most support fish. During the drought, almost all of the restored oxbows went dry. 


The weather cycle returned to more normal conditions in 2013 with a few precipitation events causing floods.  As a result of this flooding, the restored oxbows reconnected with their streams.


During this study we will sample restored oxbows to determine:


1) the fish species that first recolonize these systems and off-channel habitats,


2) whether Topeka shiners are among the early recolonizing species, and


3) if so, at what density are Topeka shiners represented.  


The oxbows that we will sample are those that were sampled in 2009 during an intense sampling effort that provided baseline fish population data for six restored oxbows.  Along with resampling these six oxbows we'll also sample any restored oxbows nearby.  Sampling results will help us determine the extent that the drought of 2012 affected Topeka shiners.



This study will provide information needed to determine the population status of this species in important tributary streams and in floodplain wetlands adjacent to them. We will also obtain information on the recolonization of fish species into floodplain habitats after the drought of 2012 when habitat essential for Topeka shiners almost disappeared. Information collected will help guide future management decisions regarding population status and recovery actions. Climate models predict extreme weather events will become more frequent.  Obtaining population density data after the drought of 2012 and comparing it to baseline population estimates from the same place during normal climate years will help researchers and managers evaluate the impact of the 2012 drought on an already imperiled species. Results from this study will used to guide and focus restoration efforts in years to come. 


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