The Missouri River Dinosaur

Scaphirhynchus_albus[1]The pallid sturgeon is, perhaps, the least sexy fish in existence. Prehistoric, armored, and occupying the muddy recesses of slow flowing rivers, it is one of nature’s leftovers from the dinosaur era. Large at maturity, the pallid sturgeon grows between 30 and 60 inches, and can weigh upwards of 85 pounds. Consistency is the modus operandi of the this fish, which has remained relatively unchanged over the last 70 million years. The pallid sturgeon is muted, having a gray coloration–like hair later in life, the sturgeon, which can live to be 100 years old, grows white. The tail is heterocercal, resembling a shark’s tail, and its body is wrapped in thick cartilage plates. In my youth, while fishing the muddy Missouri
River, if we hauled a sturgeon to the surface, we cut the line immediately to release it back to the bottom world, where it would resume sucking and slurping minnows for food. I often named these armored tanks General Patton or General Sherman, after the famous United States generals.

In my own thinking lately the pallid sturgeon has occupied an unusually large presence. I have only seen these magnificent creatures a handful of times, and usually only their shovel-like snout as it rears out of the water before I release it. You see, the pallid sturgeon is endangered. Before the Missouri River was dammed in the mid part of the 20th century, the pallid sturgeon preferred its warmer waters, which now have cooled. Now numbers have been severely reduced and it is often wondered if we will ever know the moment of passing of this species from existence.

A Connection to the Cretaceous Period

The cultural memory of the pallid sturgeon must be incredible. The Cretaceous Period from which it originated was a time when much of the Midwest was a shallow sea, and insects multiplied in diversity, with the oldest known ants and aphids arriving on earth. The Tyrannosaurus rex, and six-foot long Velociraptors roamed the land, as well as the mighty Triceratops. Large, toothy sea monsters followed the currents, as well as sharp-billed predatory waterbirds. This is the world that borne the rough-hulled pallid sturgeon.

Two populations of pallid sturgeon swim in the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers of Montana, which join forces in North Dakota, and these sturgeon are estimated to be extinct by 2018, four years from now. Who will see the last pallid sturgeon? What will it feel like to hold a taut fishing line, slicing the blue-white monofilament and then sending the last pallid sturgeon to what surely must be its watery grave?

Facing Extinction

Is it an issue of beauty, of wanting things to look pretty? Will our world look better if we are sans pallid sturgeon? I never knew the dodo bird, and, largely will never have seen many of the 150-200 species that the UN Environment Programme reports go extinct every 24 hours. And yet the world of my mind and the world I live in feel diminished because of the loss of this biodiversity. Who will give the eulogy for the pallid sturgeon?

In Tony Campolo’s book, Letters To A Young Evangelical, he documents his thinking of losing the humpback whale:

I, personally, am sensitized to the Franciscan perspective on animals each year when my wife and I go whale watching off the shores of Provincetown, Massachusetts. The naturalist on the boat with us talks about the decimation of whales and how they are on the verge of extinction. It is then that I remember that the psalmist declared that whales were created to sing hymns of praise to God. Whales sing! At least, humpback whales do. What’s more, they create new songs every year. Silencing their voices of worship by annihilating them is sinful. It might even be considered blasphemous. 1

Pallid sturgeon do not sing or delight in making new songs like the humpback whale. But they do cruise at a gentle 5 miles-per-hour, serving as a type of river janitor, cleaning and consuming small fish and vegetation on the river bottom, gently rising and falling between 2 and 50 feet of water. In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services report, “The Pallid Sturgeon, a Missouri River ‘Dinosaur,’” the species was labeled “one of the ugliest fish in North America”–yet there is something miraculous in holding a creature that links me to a time when the earth was still taking shape. It is humbling. It is awe-inspiring. And it helps reveal to me the goodness in God’s creation.

Notes:

  1. p. 208
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