The spring pygmy sunfish has been teetering on the brink of extinction for the 70-plus years it’s been known to science. Existing only in one spring complex in the Tennessee River watershed, the spring pygmy relies on the dense underwater vegetation found in spring pools both for shelter and as hunting grounds for the drifting insects and snails that are its prey. Unfortunately, the habitat of this tiny fish is rapidly changing due to development — and in some cases, is disappearing entirely.
Racing to save the spring pygmy, in late 2009 the Center filed a scientific petition seeking emergency protection for the fish under the Endangered Species Act. Degradation of water quality, reduction of water quantity, pollution in the form of pesticide and agricultural runoff, and local interest in developing the spring pygmy’s last refuge as an industrial site could each prove to be its undoing. After we filed a notice of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its lack of response to our petition, in March 2011 the agency announced the spring pygmy may warrant protection. Things looked even better in July of that year after the Center reached a landmark agreement compelling the Service to make a listing proposal by 2012 — as well as move forward in the protection process for 756 other species. The Service proposed protection for the fish in October 2012.
The spring pygmy has already twice been thought extinct since it was first discovered in 1937. While always a rare fish, the spring pygmy was once found in three spring complexes, but has been extirpated from two of them. Attempts to reintroduce a population into Pryor Springs were initially successful — until the combined influence of dredging and agricultural runoff eradicated that population yet again. It’s now limited to just one population living in a five-mile stretch of Beaverdam Creek.
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Contact: Noah Greenwald