New Big-Head Fish: Freshwater Species of the Week

The cedar sculpin was recently discovered in Montana and Idaho. Photo: USFWS

freshwater species of the weekThis week, scientists identified a new species of freshwater fish in the U.S., the cedar sculpin (Cottus schitsuumsh).

Forest Service fisheries biologist Michael Young said in a statement, “It’s really exciting to find a new species of fish. It’s something you might expect in more remote parts of the world, but not in the U.S.”

Scientists from the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station had been making genetic studies of sculpin in the upper Columbia River Basin.

Sculpin are found in headwater streams, where they serve as an important food source for trout. They are also often “indicator species,” since they are sensitive to water quality.

Sculpin are notoriously difficult to identify by species, according to fish biologists.

After genetic work by the Forest Service, scientists at the University of Montana added evidence of different body types between the known shorthead sculpin and the proposed new species. Additional evidence was provided by genetic testing at the Wildlife Genetics Lab in Missoula, Montana.

According to the Forest Service, cedar sculpin were discovered in the Coeur d’ Alene and St. Joe River Basins in Idaho and the Clark Fork River Basin in Montana.

“Because the current range of this fish overlaps the historical homeland of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe, the scientists consulted with Tribal elders to select a scientific name for the new species,” the agency said in a statement.

That led to the name Cottus schitsuumsh (s-CHEET-sue-umsh) because Schitsu’umsh means “those who were found here” and is the name for the tribe. The common name cedar sculpin refers to the western redcedar, a tree found near streams in the fish’s range.

The species naming was published in the journal Zootaxa. The new fish differs from its cousins genetically and in spine and tooth patterns.

According to the paper, cedar sculpins measure about 90 millimeters (3.5 inches) from their nose to the base of their tail. The fish has a relatively big head and displays a range of mottling and color patterns.

The cedar sculpin is “common to abundant in cool to cold tributaries with cobble and gravel bottoms,” the scientists wrote.

Sculpins were previously used as bait, but laws now prevent that practice.