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April 7, 2008

Eel-like fish makes rare appearance

Chestnut lampreys haven’t been found in Iowa interior rivers for more than 100 years

CENTERVILLE, Iowa — Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.

Mark Flammang , an Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries management biologist, had a first hand brush with serendipity as he and other DNR employees were shocking and netting walleye fish below the Rathbun Lake Dam. Walleyes seeking favorable spawning grounds near the dam have been finding themselves suddenly whisked into the Chariton River. The captured fish were being returned to the lake.

As the DNR boat navigated the churning waters near the spillway, the electrical shocks suddenly brought up more than stunned walleyes - a chestnut lamprey. Just the day before Flammang had finished a research paper called, “The Occurrence of Chestnut Lamprey in the Chariton River in South-Central Iowa.”

Catching the lamprey for Flammang meant staying up that night to include the latest find in his study.

Flammang calls the lampreys living fossils. Their fossil records go back 300 million years and are among the most primitive of living vertebrates.

Flammang admits the parasitical creature is not cute or cuddly, but finding the endangered animal is a “good indicator that something good is going on” with the water quality of the Chariton River. To date, no chestnut lampreys have been found in Iowa’s interior rivers for more than 100 years except the Chariton River. Though more numerous in the South, the eel-like fish are rare in the section of the Mississippi River bordering Iowa and they are rarely encountered in the Missouri River north of St. Joseph.

Flammang points out that the chestnut lamprey should not be confused with the larger, salt-water lamprey that invaded the Great Lakes in the 1920s. Those larger lamprey are destructive to fish populations, while there are seldom fatalities connected with the chestnut lamprey - and those usually are caused by infections at the bite site.

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