Mexico City (Associated Press)-There used to be a small fish called “Agave Split Fin” or “zoogoneticus Tequila”, which swam in a river in western Mexico but disappeared in the 1990s. However, scientists and residents have realized that a species that is extinct in nature but protected in captivity returns to its original habitat.
Its success is now intertwined with the identity of the community and international admiration.
It started more than two decades ago in Teuchitlán, a small town near the Tequila Volcano. Six students, including Omar Dominguez, began to worry about this palm-sized fish, which was only seen in the Teuchitlán River. It has disappeared from local waters, apparently due to pollution, human activities and the introduction of non-native species.
Dominguez, a 47-year-old researcher at Michoacan University, said that at the time, only elderly people remembered the fish because its orange tail was called “gallito” or “little rooster.”
In 1998, environmentalists from the Chester Zoo in England and other European institutions came here to help establish a laboratory to protect Mexican fish. Dominguez said they brought several pairs of agave cleft fin fish from the collector’s aquarium.
The fish began to breed in the aquarium, and a few years later Dominguez and his colleagues took a gamble and reintroduced them into the Teuchitlán River. “They told us it was impossible, (that) they would die when we returned them.”
So they look for options. They built an artificial pond for the semi-captive stage, and in 2012 they placed 40 pairs there.
Two years later, there were about 10,000 fish. As a result, funds were guaranteed, not only from Chester Zoo, but also from more than a dozen organizations from Europe, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates to transfer experiments to the river.
There, they studied parasites, microorganisms in the water, interactions with predators, and competition with other fish, and then put these fish in floating cages.
The goal is to re-establish the fragile balance. As far as this part is concerned, the key lies not in scientists, but in local residents.
“When I started the environmental education program, I thought they would turn a deaf ear to us…it happened at the beginning,” Dominguez said.
But environmentalists have succeeded with patience and years of puppet shows, games and explanations about the ecological and healthy value of “zoogoneticus tequila”-this fish helps control the mosquitoes that spread dengue fever.
Some residents gave this little fish a nickname: “Zoogy”. They produced comics and formed “River Guardians”, mainly a group of children. They collect garbage, clean up rivers and remove invasive plants.
Dominguez said it is difficult to say whether the water quality is better, because there is no previous data to compare, but the entire ecosystem has been improved. The rivers are cleaner, there are fewer exotic species, and cattle are no longer allowed to drink in some areas.
Fish multiply rapidly in their floating cages. Then they are marked so that they can be tracked and released. It was the end of 2017, and the population increased by 55% in six months. Last month, this fish has expanded to another part of the river.
The reintroduction of extinct species from the wild to nature is complicated and time-consuming. Przewalski’s horses and Arabian antelopes are successful examples. Chester Zoo stated on December 29 that the agave split fin had joined the small group.
The zoo said in a statement: “This project has been cited as a case study of the successful global reintroduction of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)-recent scientific studies have confirmed that this fish is thriving and has been breeding in the river.”
“This is an important moment in the struggle for species conservation,” said Gerardo García, curator of lower vertebrates and invertebrates at the zoo.
The Red List of Endangered Species of the World Conservation Union lists agave split-fin agave as an endangered species. Mexico’s freshwater ecosystem is under pressure from pollution and over-exploitation of water resources. According to the 2020 report led by IUCN and ABQ BioPark in the United States, more than one third of the 536 freshwater fish species assessed in the country are threatened with extinction.
Nevertheless, in Mexico, Dominguez and his team have begun to study another fish that is considered extinct in the wild: “skiffia francesae”. Golden Skiffia may one day add “Zoogy” to the Teuchitlán River.