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Cedar sculpin

Western Montana has a new fish.

The cedar sculpin won’t be showing up in anglers’ creels any time soon, except perhaps in the form of some bigger trout’s lunch. But biologists at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula consider it a significant step in understanding how our river systems work.

Fisheries biologist Michael Young said the cedar sculpin looks similar to the well-known shorthead sculpin, but has clear genetic differences. It lives in the Clark Fork River basin, as well as the drainages feeding the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe rivers in Idaho. They are often the only fish to inhabit the upper headwater streams of those rivers and provide a food source for larger fish.

“Recognizing species of sculpins is a challenge because even distantly related species look very much alike,” Young said in an email. “So rather than taking a morphological approach to identification, we used genetic methods to delineate the species. It’s really exciting to find a new species of fish. It’s something you might expect in more remote parts of the world, but not in the U.S.”

Young said because the cedar sculpin lives in the historical homeland of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Tribe, its tribal elders were asked to participate in determining its scientific name. The result is Cottus schitsuumsh (pronounced s-CHEET-sue-umsh), which means “those who were found here.” That’s also the Coeur d’Alene tribal name in their native language.

“We’re not sure how it fits differently into the ecosystem,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries manager Pat Saffel. “We have yet to learn what it does.”

Sculpins are small, big-headed fish with large fins that live on the bottom of streams and rivers. Saffel said because they don’t travel far, they often develop special traits unique to the drainage they live in. That can lead to genetic changes significant enough to justify a new species designation.

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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