Scientists work to preserve ‘living dinosaur' fish in Missouri River

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Every year, experts with the Missouri Department of Conservation do a head count of the Pallid sturgeon population in the Missouri River. 

That’s if they can find them. 

If they do, Dept. of Conservation experts collect adult Pallid sturgeon for breeding.

On a cold April morning this year, the crew was on the river near Kansas City setting baited trot lines near the bottom of the river to catch sturgeon.

"We'll take adult broodstock to the hatcheries (and) spawn them out," said Kyle Winders, a resource scientist with the department. "A year from now, we'll stock those progeny back out of the Missouri River."

But finding those adult Pallid sturgeon can be a challenge. For every thousand regular sturgeon, experts believe there is only one Pallid sturgeon. 

Adding to the complexity of the species is how long it takes for the rare fish to become sexually mature enough to breed. It can take more than a decade for Pallid sturgeon to be able to breed, compared to about two years for most other fish. 

"They are some of the hardest fish to breed," said Roderick May, hatchery manager at the Neosho Fish Hatchery. "Remember, this is a species that has been around since the dinosaurs. They are some very mysterious creatures." 

Pallid sturgeon, as a species, have been around for 70 million years, said May. 

"They are some of the last living dinosaurs, and they are truly living dinosaurs.  They have been a part of the ecosystem since before man showed up."

Pallid sturgeon can live to 100 years of age, reach lengths of 6 feet and weigh up to 80 pounds. Instead of scales, they have rows of bony plates along their long slender body.  

Over the past few decades, thousands of hatchery-raised Pallid sturgeon have been released into the Missouri River, but the population is still not self-sustaining. 

That's why two new "rearing complexes" were created in the Missouri River. They are basically a small shallow outcropping along the river that allows the water to move slower than the main channel. That way the Pallid sturgeon embryos have a safe place to grow up and feed. 

There are plans to build 10 more such habitats. 

The goal is to save the ancient species of fish, even if it takes decades.  

"They're an important species for the ecosystem too," Winders said. "They're the top predator in the Missouri River, so (if they go extinct) it would be like taking a shark out of the ocean."

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