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New Fish Species Gets Coeur d’Alene Name

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Previously undiscovered species are being newly catalogued all the time, underlining the reality that modern science is barely acquainted with our planet and its web of life. Hundreds flooded the radar last year alone. 

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Most of the new discoveries have been scattered around the world. But a newfound fish species is not only from a U.S. waterway but has also been given an Indian name.

The fish, identified in northern Idaho and northwestern Montana by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, is a species of sculpin and was given the common name Cedar Sculpin. Its known range overlaps much of the traditional homeland of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, or Schitsu’umsh as they call themselves.

Sculpins, while relatively unknown, “are really common in the Spokane River Basin, basically the Coeur d’Alene, St. Joe and St. Maries rivers,” said Michael Young, who works with the research station. “It’s everywhere. It’s the most abundant fish in those watersheds.”

The scientific name for this new fish is Cottus schitsu’umsh, suggested by tribal elders after Young contacted the Coeur d’Alene Tribe because he thought it would be appropriate to name the fish “after the first peoples in that area,” he said. That precedent had been set earlier with some Pacific salmon as well as fish elsewhere in the country, and the gesture did not go unnoticed.

“We were pleased to have the opportunity to link the Coeur d’Alene language to Cottus schitsu’umsh, which has lived in close proximity to our tribe for hundreds of years,” Coeur d’Alene tribal chairman Chief Allan told ICTMN.

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The last new vertebrate species identified in this region was 10 to 15 years ago, Young estimated. Sculpin are small fish, usually less than four inches in length, and appear almost prehistoric, with prominent feather fins and slender bodies. They are valuable as food for other species, most notably westslope cutthroat trout in these waters, and are found primarily in headwater streams.

“Perhaps across the world there is no more difficult group of fish to identify than sculpin,” Young said.

The two species now identified in this area are good examples. Their differences are very subtle. Externally the only difference is in the lateral line. In one the lateral line extends the full length of the body, but the other has a break in the line near the tail. Genetically, they are distinct.

Just over the divide in Montana the sculpin is found in the St. Regis River and adjacent sections of the Clark Fork River. Young believes this population might have originated from Idaho fish moved by fishermen and used as bait.

“Sculpins were a really common bait fish three or four decades ago,” he said.

The shorthead sculpin is the species associated with these waters, but biologists had suspected there might be an additional species and began working in 2008 to determine if that was indeed the case. The fieldwork and subsequent genetic analysis was done by the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, with follow-up morphological work at the University of Montana.

“I never thought we’d find a new species of fish,” Young said. “I certainly didn’t think we’d find them in the Pacific Northwest. That was a real huge surprise.”

Now that it has happened, though, Young said he does not expect the discoveries to end.

“I don’t think this is the last new species,” he told ICTMN. “I think we’re going to find more.”