Water We Talking About? Toothy Fish and a Mussel Mystery.

The entire world is now a virtual classroom, so we launched this series as a way to help adults entertain their new kid co-workers! The idea is simple – kids have questions, we find the scientists who can give them an answer.

We’ll let the kids take it from here – Homeschool is now in session!

The Question:

Do we have any freshwater alligator-gar fish, long nose or short nose gar in any of our local waters?

Nathan, Age 8 – Boulder Junction, WI

The Answer:

Hi Nathan. We went to the best source we could think of to answer this question – Solomon David leads the Gar Lab at Nicholls State University and is, to put it mildly, obsessed with all-things-gar! (There’s even an article in Ranger Rick magazine about him.) Here’s his answer.

Solomon David (bottom left) and UW-Green Bay students hold gar near Green Bay.

ReGARding Gar – Hi Nathan! Great question, and I’m happy to hear you’re interested in learning more about fishes in your local waters, especially gars!

While there are no Alligator Gars in Wisconsin waters (they are found more in the southern United States), there are Longnose and Shortnose Gars in Wisconsin.

They are more common south of Boulder Junction, particularly in Lake Winnebago and Green Bay (but are found throughout most of Wisconsin). I had the opportunity to work with some in streams connected to Green Bay (see photos).

Both species will be spawning in Wisconsin in the next month or so (late April-May), so be on the lookout in shallow waters near vegetation! I hope you get to see some this year! – Best reGARds, Solomon David

Solomon David releases a gar into a stream near Green Bay.

The Question:

My mom tells me that the St Germain River by our house used to be full of fresh water mussels. Now we hardly see any of them in the river. What happened?

Murray, Age 6 – St. Germain, WI

The Answer(s):

Hi Murray! We passed your question on to Vince Butitta, a graduate student here in Madison, who is currently writing his dissertation (the big research paper students have to write to get their PhD) on mussels. Vince has spent the last couple of years looking for mussels all over the state. Here’s what he had to say.

Vince Butitta and UW-Madison undergrad, Liddy Ginther, sort and identify freshwater mussels from a northern Wisconsin lake.

The Big Mussel Mystery – Thanks so much for your question.

It’s true that freshwater mussels used to be very common in almost every river across North America doing their job to filter the water and keep our rivers clean.

But just like in the St. Germain River, freshwater mussels are much less common than ever before. There are a couple big reasons for why so many have died in the past and their numbers continue to decline.

First, mussels use fish to help them reproduce just like flowers use bees and other pollinators to reproduce. When all the rivers were connected by flowing water, mussels could reproduce easily, but when we built dams on almost all of our rivers, it prevented a lot of mussels from being able to reproduce (imagine if everyone had 100 foot tall fences in our backyards stopping all bees and birds from being able to pollinate flowers!) Mussels are also threatened by some invasive species (like zebra mussels) that out -compete our native mussels and hurt other aquatic organisms as well.

Recently though, mussels around the world have been mysteriously found to be dying at incredible rates in rivers that usually support healthy mussel populations. Mussel biologists around the world are working right now as fast as they can to find out what the new causes could be! What we do know is that mussels play a very important role in keeping our rivers clean and our ecosystems healthy and they need our help to protect them. Thanks for your question and caring about the mussels! – Vince

Vince Butitta snorkeling for mussels.

Thanks for tuning in! Next week’s big question – what’s making the lakes Charlotte loves look like root beer?

If you’re a kid with a question of your own, ask us at media@limnology.wisc.edu – @WiscLimnology on Twitter – or our Center for Limnology Facebook Page!