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The Lost Fish of Ohio

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea The Lost Fish of OhioBig Darby Creek - Photo by Jesse Bethea
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In 1977, they wanted to build a new bridge over Big Darby Creek, and a fish stopped them.

The bridge there at the time, where Route 665 crosses the Darby, was 73 years old, held up by a rusty latticework of steel trusses. It was falling apart, closed since the previous autumn. It needed to be replaced. David Weir, Director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, was understandably frustrated.

“Approval of the environmental impact statement has been the only holdup on the project for some time now,” Weir told the Columbus Dispatch. “Everything is ready to go.”

The environmental impact statement could not be approved because environmentalists maintained that constructing a new bridge on the site would disrupt the natural habitat of Big Darby Creek and threaten the rare species that lived there—including the fish.

This was late in the reign of Ohio’s imperious Governor Jim Rhodes, who had just committed to a massive statewide infrastructure program, at an estimated cost of $35 million—$153 million in today’s money. The state’s task was clear: build or replace 145 bridges over the next five years. One of those 145 bridges was the dilapidated crossing at Big Darby Creek. And for a little while in 1977, that one bridge, that one cog in the engine of progress, that one, distant extension of the fierce and feared Rhodes momentum, came to a halt.

Because of a fish.

Because of a fish no one had seen in 20 years.

Because of a fish no one has seen since.

Scioto Madtom sketch via The Fishes of Ohio

In the dark, emerald waters of Big Darby Creek, there lived a fish. The fish was pale brown with dark splotches running down its back, a cream-colored belly, and mildly venomous spines in its fins. Mustache-like barbels protruded from its snout, allowing it to detect food at the bottom of the creek. The fish was small. In fact, to call it small would be an enormous understatement.

It would have been about half as long as this sentence.

A fish like this one—a madtom—has all the recognizable features of a catfish, but a catfish cartoonishly reduced to a micro scale. There are a couple dozen different species of madtom in North America, and several different species in Ohio, but none like this. This fish was unique.

It did not know it was unique, of course. It was just swimming along at the bottom of Big Darby Creek. High above its barbeled little head, the surface of the water may have been opaque white with ice and snow. But somewhere in the ice pack, probably where the water starts rushing too fast to freeze, at the first of four riffles in the Darby where the stream curls into a drastic 90-degree angle just west of the Route 104 bridge, there was an opening large enough for the tiny fish to be observed and captured by the outside world. Perhaps the water was clear enough that the fish could even see a pair of human legs trudging towards it through the icy stream.

Milton Trautman in 1974 – Image via Columbus Citizens Journal

Milton Trautman did not come to academia by any traditional route. Instead, he became a fish expert the way the best fish experts do. “…I was five years old and all I wanted was fishing tackle and books,” he would later tell the Columbus Dispatch. Milton grew up on the South Side of Columbus, the son of a plumber. He left school at the age of 14 and would never achieve a formal university degree, instead relying on the teachings of Ohio State and University of Michigan experts and his extensive, hands-on field research—research he typically conducted alongside his wife Mary.

Mary Auten of Rawson, a tiny village in Hancock County, Ohio, had a more traditional ascent to academia, going to Bluffton College and following up at The Ohio State University, where she got her master’s and doctorate degree before teaching at Ashland College. Perhaps it’s fitting that Milton and Mary, who would one day be the first married couple inducted into the Ohio Conservation Hall of Fame as renowned experts on fish and fisheries, met each other on an island. It was Gibraltar Island, a 6-acre hunk of rock in Lake Erie, nestled in Put-in-Bay, where OSU has maintained laboratories since the late 19th Century. That was where they met. But they connected—again fittingly—over the fish collection at Ashland College.

“I was working on Fishes of Ohio and had fellows reporting to me from colleges all over the state,” Milton told the Dispatch in 1974. “They turned in the lousiest data and I thought, ‘What will a woman do?’ When I went into Mary’s classroom, every collection, dozens and dozens, was laid out on long tables, complete data on each one, in triplicate, and the microscopes all ready. I never identified fish so fast.”

They married in 1940.

Mary Trautman in 1974 – Image via Columbus Citizens Journal

Three years later, on December 30, 1943, Milton and Mary Trautman trudged through the shallow waters of Big Darby Creek. Milton would later describe this day in detail both in The Fishes of Ohio and in a 1976 interview with Michael Smith of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Trautmans were there to study the winter habits of the darter populations by seining the creek—dipping a long, weighted net into the water to catch whatever happened to swim by. The temperature was near zero and the seining net would freeze as Milton dunked it underwater, pulling out darters and tossing them onto a snow bank where Mary would put the fish into a cooler for later study.

And in the middle of this process—seining the creek, pulling out a darter, tossing onto the snow, into the cooler—Milton plucked the fish from his net.

“Here is one of those funny looking catfish,” he told Mary, before putting it into a bottle to separate it from the darters. Milton had only encountered the fish once before. In fact, he saw this fish for the first time just a month earlier while seining Big Darby Creek with Walter Cunningham, taking two of the strange little madtoms out of the water.

“It got me interested,” said Trautman in 1976. “I thought that I would take time out and study that thing, and I couldn’t compare it to anything. And I said to Mary, ‘This thing looks like a new species, but I just don’t have time to do anything with it.’”

These three madtoms collected by Milton, Mary and Walter Cunningham in November and December, 1943, represented the first emissaries of an unknown species from the deep, dark waters of forgotten Ohio. Milton would not catch another of these strange little fish until November 1945. The fish then disappeared until the autumn of 1957 when a relative horde of them started appearing in Milton’s net—two in September, a few more in October, then seven on November 17.

And that was it—18 specimens over 14 years. Trautman’s colleague Doug Mount even kept two of the fish alive in an aquarium for a year, trying to get them to breed.

“It looked like they might, but apparently we didn’t have the habitat for them to breed in,” said Trautman in 1976. “We watched them and watched them and watched them.”

But the madtom would neither breed in captivity, nor reappear in the wild. Since November 17, 1957, no one has seen the fish.

Model of the Scioto Madtom – Image provided by Marc Kibbey

“The Scioto madtom doesn’t make much sense.”

That’s how John Tetzloff, president of the Darby Creek Association, bluntly put it in 2003. For one thing, “Scioto madtom” is a complete misnomer, as one of the defining traits of the fish is that it has never been found in the Scioto, or the Olentangy, or even most of Big Darby Creek. It has only ever been found in the little angle of stream where Route 104 crosses the Darby—a place now known as Trautman’s Riffle.

And it is precisely because the fish has only ever been found at Trautman’s Riffle that it doesn’t make much sense.

Noturus trautmani, aka the Scioto madtom, is an endemic species, meaning it’s only found one place in the world. Endemic species typically appear in places that are uniquely cut off from other ecosystems, like the Galapagos Islands. But Big Darby Creek is not the Galapagos.

“Big Darby’s not isolated,” Tetzloff told me in 2020. “It’s part of a giant Ohio River system, connected to the Scioto and Ohio River and so forth. And it also couldn’t have been there for very long…Darby didn’t even exist before glaciation. So it doesn’t really make sense for there to be a really rare species in the Scioto system, or really anywhere in the upper Ohio River system.”

Since the discovery of this impossible fish, and in lieu of any more specimens to study since 1957, several theories have been floated to explain the madtom’s presence in the Darby. One is that Trautman discovered a population of hybrid fish that has never been reproduced. Or perhaps the Scioto madtom was once widespread throughout the streams of Ohio and beyond, but human pollution drove it to extinction. In this theory, the 18 specimens Trautman and his colleagues captured in the 1940s and ‘50s were not the first emissaries of a new species, but the last survivors of a dying one.

When asked if he has a favorite theory that would explain the presence of the madtom, Tetzloff laughed and said, “I have a wilder theory,” one that goes all the way back to the Ice Age. Perhaps, said Tetzloff, the madtom actually did become isolated in the Darby system during glaciation. That would mean that the glaciers didn’t wipe out Big Darby Creek, the whole system wasn’t under ice the entire time. After all, said Tetzloff, even during an ice age, it wasn’t all that cold right at the edge of the glacier.

But still, Tetzloff admits, “that’s kind of out there.”

Drawing of Trautman’s Riffle from Ohio Conservation Bulletin 1963 – Image provided by Marc Kibbey

It wasn’t just the bridge.

Before Big Darby Creek was declared a state and then national scenic river, the City of Columbus spent much of the late 1970s eyeing the creek as a potential reservoir. Predictably, environmentalists uniformly opposed the idea of damming one of the most biologically diverse waterways in Ohio with more species of fish than any other stream in the state.

“Included in that total,” wrote the Dispatch in 1974, “is a rare species of catfish known colloquially as ‘Scioto madtom,’ which is found nowhere else in the world.”

But even as bridges were delayed and dams forestalled and scenic rivers declared partially in the name of its protection, the fish remained elusive. Expeditions in the 1970s and ‘80s by the Ohio Cooperative Fisheries Research Unit, by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, by OSU scientists and by Trautman himself all failed to recapture the madtom or prove the species still lingers in the Darby.

“Since 1924, no stream section in Ohio has been seined more assiduously and intensely than have these riffles,” wrote Trautman in the 1981 edition of Fishes of Ohio, “and few species of Ohio fishes have been more consistently sought after than this one.”

The most recent assessment of whether or not the Scioto madtom still exists came in 2009 with a five-year review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Dr. [Ted] Cavender has conducted annual fish surveys in Big Darby Creek since 1970, but these efforts failed to collect any Scioto madtoms,” according to the review. “The exact cause of the Scioto madtom’s decline is unknown, but it was likely due to modification of its habitat from siltation, suspended industrial effluents and agricultural runoff.”

USFWS concluded, “Based on this five-year review, Scioto madtom does not meet the definition of an endangered or threatened species, and therefore delisting the species due to extinction is recommended.”

According to Angela Boyer, an endangered species coordinator for USFWS, her service believes the madtom is likely extinct, but to officially remove the fish from the endangered species list and declare it extinct would require a bureaucratic rulemaking process and public comment. Until it’s officially declared extinct, the madtom has to be considered as an endangered species in any environmental impact assessments for projects that might impact its invisible population. It is both extinct and not extinct at the same time—a Schrödinger’s catfish.

But even if it does still exist, the Scioto madtom is far from the only Big Darby species in need of protection.

“In Big Darby Creek we also have some…freshwater mussel species that are federally listed,” Boyer told me in 2020. “Their range actually overlaps with the Scioto madtom range. So whereas [with] the Scioto madtom, we may not be able to make a case for it still being present in that project area, we certainly would for freshwater mussels.”

Big Darby Creek – Photo by Jesse Bethea

It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes a species comes back from the dead.

Boyer has personal experience with just such a miracle. In 1994, Michael Hoggarth, a biology professor at Otterbein College, stumbled upon a small population of pearly-lavender freshwater mussels in Ohio’s Killbuck Creek. These were live, reproducing specimens of the Purple Cat’s Paw, one of the most endangered mussel species in North America.

“When I started in the Ohio field office with US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999, we started doing searches to try and find females of the species to start doing some propagation work,” said Boyer. “Over these many years of effort, we were finally successful at getting females and successful at propagating starting in 2013.”

So resurrecting a species from a watery grave—while extremely difficult—is not impossible.

“That species really was on the brink of extinction,” said Boyer. “We found a small population…and we have, through propagation and lots of efforts by lots of people in lots of states, reintroduced this species.”

But restoring a population of Scioto madtoms to Big Darby Creek would require someone to actually find some—even just one male and one female. And if tomorrow, some lucky person were to seine the lost fish out of the Darby, what would the reaction be?

“A little disbelief, perhaps, since this species hasn’t been seen since before I was born,” said Boyer. “I would be thrilled but I’d want to see pictures. I’d want some proof. But I would be jumping up and down with excitement. That would be amazing.”

“Euphoria,” said Tetzloff of his hypothetical reaction. “Amazement.”

Tetzloff, like so many before him, has searched for Ohio’s lost fish at night when madtoms tend to be most active. One night while seining in the Darby, he even thought he’d found one.

“I took it up and was looking at it in the headlights of my car,” said Tetzloff. “One of the distinguishing features to look for is that the back fin doesn’t have any markings on it, so I was holding it up to the light.”

It turned out that Tetzloff’s intense headlights were washing out the colors of the fish he was holding. A closer look proved the fish not to be the elusive Scioto madtom. But I wondered; if he really had been standing at the edge of Big Darby Creek in the middle of the night, staring at an allegedly extinct creature silhouetted by his headlights, what would he have done then?

“I would have…” he started to answer. “That’s a good question. That was before cellphones. ‘Cause you don’t want to endanger it…I probably…I hadn’t gotten that far.”

Cleared and stained specimen of the Scioto Madtom – Image provided by Marc Kibbey
Paratopotype of the Scioto Madtom – Image provided by Marc Kibbey
Milton Trautman holding a longnose gar – Image provided by Marc Kibbey
Big Darby Creek – Photo by Jesse Bethea
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