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Biologists turn to pottery company to help imperiled East Tennessee fish

Biologists working to conserve the chucky madtom, an imperiled catfish known to exist only in East Tennessee’s Little Chucky Creek, have turned to a novel idea to help the fish – flowerpot saucers.

The saucers were converted into artificial housing for the chucky madtom, a small fish which lives on stream bottoms. Biologists peppered the bottom of Little Chucky Creek with the shelters, much like one would put out bluebird boxes or bat houses.

A ceramic bowl built to protect small fish in the wild.
An upside-down madtom motel. Photo by Sarah McRae, USFWS.

“The chucky madtom is incredibly rare, so we need to be innovative in our efforts to monitor this secretive fish,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) biologist Mark Cantrell. “This approach is a little unusual, but if successful it could provide important nesting habitat.”

Cantrell got the idea for using the artificial structures after talking with scientists who had developed the structure to use with the Carolina madtom, a rare fish found in North Carolina’s Tar and Neuse River basins. In laboratory tests, they found the Carolina madtoms actually preferred the artificial shelter over natural shelters like mussel shells, rocks and leaves.

The shelters are made of two flower-pot saucers turned upside-down and glued one on top of the other. Stones are glued in the basin of the lower saucer to help hold the structure in place. The upper saucer has a hole on the edge for the fish to swim in and out, and notches for water flow.

One of the greatest challenges in the project was simply finding the right shape flower pot saucer. After searching eight different home and garden stores without luck, the Service turned to Brown’s Pottery on Hendersonville Road in Arden, North Carolina. Brown’s Pottery, which opened in Virginia in 1740, makes about 400 ceramic products, from flower pots to apple bakers according to company owner Charlie Brown. The company moved to Asheville in 1924, and despite two and a half centuries in business and the diversity of products they make, Brown points out they’ve never worked on something quite like this.

“This was a first and we were glad to help out,” said Brown, pointing out that if the project is successful he would like to work with biologists to improve the design so the houses could leave the factory ready to go straight into the river without further assembly.

Cantrell assembled a team of biologists from the Service, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Conservation Fisheries, Inc. that spent two days placing the structures and searching for the madtom. So far, 70 of the structures have been set out and Cantrell plans to check them every couple of weeks.

First described as a species in 2005, only 14 specimens of the Chucky madtom have ever been found, with the most recent find coming in 2004. This comes despite numerous searches, including a 2005 effort that looked at 12 sites on Little Chucky Creek and 22 tributaries to the creek.

Madtoms are tiny catfish that typically live on the stream bottom, often spending the day beneath rock slabs, boulders, or other debris, such as logs. The chucky madtom prefers to nest beneath large, flat slabs of rock resting on a stream bed of pea-sized gravel. The Service is considering the chucky madtom for the federal list of threatened and endangered species. There are three federally-protected madtoms in the Southern Appalachians - the smoky and yellowfin madtoms, which have been part of a successful reintroduction project in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cherokee National Forest streams, and the pygmy madtom, which is less than two-inches long as an adult.


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