Oct 19: Why Sturgeons?

After a long series of flights, including a trans-Atlantic ride to Paris on the new Airbus A380, we arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia on Sunday evening. The Airbus A380 is known as the “Big One.” It is definitely big, and it was a very smooth flight, but there is precious little leg room for a 6-hour flight—no wonder they can fit more than 500 people on this plane!

On Monday morning, we met our colleagues in the lobby at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences (ZIN), a short walk and across the River Neva from our hotel.

The Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Once inside, behind the door separating the public displays from the research side of the museum, I was immediately brought back to all the natural history collections that I have visited over the course of my research on the anatomy and evolution of fishes. The long winding hallways, leading back to collection rooms and offices. The unique smell that is common to these buildings, and a unique feel that is hard to convey. Perhaps it is the creaking floors, or the faint smell of alcohol (the preservative of choice for natural history collections) in the air. Or maybe it’s the pictures and photos of famous natural historians from the 1700s to the present day that line the walls, serving as inspiration for our study of the natural world.

These are special institutions and over the course of these postings, we hope to give a glimpse inside them, and what makes them so special, and why they are vital to the modern study of biology. But first, I want to start with a simple question directly related to this trip: Why sturgeons?

This question is best answered by example. On our first afternoon of work, Casey and I worked through the holdings in the ZIN collections of a sturgeon called Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi—the Syr Darya sturgeon. We took measurements of the specimens, studied them under the microscope, and figured out which specimens we would take photos of for future reference and use in publications.

When one hears the word “sturgeon,” the mind often wanders to thoughts of large, prehistoric looking fishes, or at least the most famous of their products, caviar. The Syr Darya sturgeon, found only in the Syr river of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, is “prehistoric” looking, I suppose (though another member of the same genus, the Great Amu Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni, may be more so—with its head and body covered by bony spikes!), but you would be hard pressed to get much caviar from any one individual. The 20 or so specimens we spent the afternoon with—the largest not quite 10 inches long—were all sexually mature, the females filled with eggs (the bellies of these had all been cut open by some previous sturgeon researcher, which gave us a chance to look inside).

So, this is a good answer to, “Why Sturgeon?” The variation captured in this one family of fishes—going from the small Syr Darya sturgeon to the great beluga sturgeon (Huso huso), famed for its prized caviar and ranking as one of the world’s largest bony fishes—is amazing.

Another answer to this question is perhaps, unfortunately, also best exemplified by the Syr Darya sturgeon: this species is widely thought to be extinct, a victim of the drying of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. These specimens, and others like them in collections (though few if any specimens of this species exist in collections outside of Russia) are the only records of the species that we have – or ever will have – left to study, to learn about, and to appreciate this little part of the biodiversity of the planet.

The Syr Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi

The Amu Darya sturgeon, Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni

A "large" Syr Darya sturgeon - a female loaded with eggs.

But many groups of fishes, indeed many groups of organisms can fill this bill: there are many groups that have very peculiar life history strategies, and many groups of organisms have members that have recently gone extinct (whether we know it or not). But in thinking about it, this answers probably another question better: why should we care about sturgeons? To get to “why sturgeons” question, maybe I should back up a little: sturgeons are intrinsically fascinating to both scientists and the general public alike. These are charismatic animals that have captured our imagination, which is no small feat for a fish (most of the so-called charismatic megafauna are adorned with hair and, in many ways, are much closer to humans, evolutionarily, if not ecologically or geographically). They quite literally have been around since the time of the dinosaurs (in 2006, I helped describe a fossil sturgeon species that was discovered inside the ribcage of a hadrosaur), and therefore have a long, and interesting evolutionary history. These are culturally important fishes for peoples throughout the Northern Hemisphere. And yes, there is the economic value of sturgeons – caviar and meat. But it is more than all this, or perhaps all this wrapped together that makes these special fishes. Personally, I can’t really say why I am drawn to these fishes, except that they represent a puzzle to me – anatomically, evolutionarily, and ecologically. For over half of my 15-year post-baccalaureate academic career, I have had grant support for my study of sturgeons, and for the other half, I have been thinking and studying sturgeons, at least on “nights and weekends” if not full time. In working on the paleontology of sturgeons, and holding the remains of sturgeons some 80 million years old, I can’t help to wonder how such biological variation has come to be, and persisted for such long periods of times. Some days I think I am close to understanding these fishes, but most days I just keep coming up with more questions to ask about them… we’ll see how this trip ends, but I suspect we will come home with reams of paper with data – measurements and notes, some quantitative and some qualitative. Among these data will be the answers to some questions, but also, in all likelihood, enough new ones to replace those!

About ehilton

Eric J. Hilton received his Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1996, and his Ph.D. in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, also from UMass Amherst, in 2002. Before coming to VIMS in 2007, he conducted post-doctoral research in the Geology Department at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, and the Division of Fishes of the U.S. National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, D.C. He is a broadly trained vertebrate zoologist, with a primary research interest in the anatomy, evolution, and diversification of the ray-finned fishes, a group of animals that includes over half of all living vertebrates. He uses a multidisciplinary approach to study evolution, drawing on the data and techniques of paleontology, comparative anatomy, developmental biology, biogeography, and histology. Other ongoing research projects include the ecology of larval fishes in the Chesapeake Bay, the biology and management of Atlantic sturgeon, and monitoring the population of American shad in Virginian waters. He oversees the growth and use of the VIMS Ichthyological Collection, teaches the course in the diversity of fishes, and trains graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
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