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The Friend of Fish - Dr. John Wares

02/06/2023 10:00 AM | Anvi Srivastava (Administrator)

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At our Georgia Museum of Natural History, you all know there are over a million preserved fish, and of those there are currently 116 Cyprinellalutrensis, the “red shiner”, and 881 Cyprinellavenusta, the “blacktail shiner”. Gorgeous little fish, the blacktail shiner is native to the northwestern part of Georgia and into adjoining regions to the north and west; the red shiner is a western species that I knew from my time studying with Dr. Tom Turner in New Mexico (Tom is known to croon “Louie, Louie” when C. lutrensis is caught in the seine).  

(red shiner, C. lutrensis)

The red shiner has been introduced into our southeastern drainages by human activity, and almost immediately biologists started to understand how they didn’t just compete with the blacktail shiners, they also breed with them. That can have consequences for creating a “hybrid swarm”, possibly altering the local fish community, and so people wanted to know the mechanisms that promote or limit that hybridization.  

It turns out that among the first researchers to study that problem was Dr. Exalton Delco – the first Black Ph.D. in Zoology from the University of Texas – who got his degree in 1962.

Delco studied hybrid zones in the southeastern U.S. and focused on the soundscape that they were using to recognize potential mates. This and other processes of anthropogenic disturbance, like sediment load, continue to be studied in this hybrid system, but Delco was able to do this work using clever experiments and a load of field work at a time that this would have been particularly difficult relative to today – though Black scientists still have to negotiate all sorts of problematic behavior and social biases in doing their work in remote natural habitats, for sure. Dr. Exalton Delco continued to have a long career of teaching biology and guiding the University of Texas system towards more collaborative work with community colleges and HBCUs in the region. Notably, some of our members from Texas may also recall his wife, Wilhelmina Ruth Delco, who was a member of the Texas House of Representatives from the 1970s into the 1990s.  

(photo from the linked article) 

As somebody who has done my share of specimen collecting and other measurements in streams, rivers, coastal ecosystems, and beyond, it’s worth considering what risks I have been able to ignore in wading through creeks or land behind homes for access to sampling sites because it can be explained away as serving the mission of science, or at least, the University of Georgia.  

Scientists who don’t look or identify the same as myself in all sorts of ways can run into real problems trying to gain the same access – and it can get dangerous. As a matter of fact, the National Science Foundation is now ensuring that funded scientists have a plan for safe access for their student researchers to be able to perform collections from natural populations in an equitable and appropriate way 

So, knowing the work that Dr. Delco performed over 60 years ago – against the backdrop of the Greensboro, NC sit-ins and so much other focus on civil rights and social change – it’s a good time to celebrate his work that went into knowing about these fish and their history of interaction and change. The 116 red shiners we have at GMNH, and the 881 blacktail shiners, have a LOT to tell us about their history, as well as our own.  

And if you want to read more about how important this work, and access to natural spaces, can be for a biologist then you will want to read Dr. Drew Lanham’s book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature and hope that you are as excited as we are about having Dr. Lanham as our speaker at 2023 Celebration! 

Thanks for reading.

(blacktail shiner, illustration at 

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