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Endangered Fish Discovered in Shay Creek

February 10, 1986

BIG BEAR, Calif. (AP) _ A University of Redlands biology professor, the federal government and a local water district are trying to save the endangered unarmored threespine stickleback.

The two-inch-long fish might have been overlooked as Shay Creek dried up in the San Bernardino Mountains 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, but Professor James Malcolm spotted the colony last summer.

As a result, officials moved 225 of the fish to aquariums at Redlands, where Malcolm and students have been caring for them and breeding them since last August. Meanwhile, the Big Bear City Community Services District has pumped water into Shay Creek, district general manager Michael Perry said.

However, Malcolm’s aquariums may hold the key to the survival of the fish.

The 225 fish were placed in 12 different tanks so that if there was a breakdown or disease outbreak, all of them wouldn’t be wiped out.

Only 60 of those transplanted to the lab survived. But mating experiments were successful, and 150 fish have been born in the lab.

Malcolm believes the flora and fauna of the creek will have regenerated enough by the end of March for the fish to be put back.

His find is the only confirmed colony of the fish known to exist away from the Santa Clara River near Saugus.

There are seven species of stickleback. The threespine stickleback is characterized by three spines protruding from its back and a spine protruding from each side. The endangered subspecies, the unarmored threespine stickleback, is so named because it lacks bony protective side plates. It’s believed a lack of natural predators caused the subspecies to evolve without armor.

The federal government’s endangered species list contains 225 plants and animals, including 73 in California.

Malcolm, 34, began studying the stickleback while working on his bachelor’s degree in zoology, earned in 1973 at Oxford University in his native England. He also has a doctorate in biology from Harvard University.

In July, Malcolm happened upon Shay Creek. Later he found it was drying up and he collected numerous corpses of the endangered fish.

He reported his findings to the Unarmored Threespine Stickleback Recovery Team, a group of state and federal officials charged with protecting the fish from extinction.

Nobody knows how the fish got into the creek, which is at a higher, colder altitude than is common for the species.

″There is no doubt that (Malcolm’s) find is unusual and significant,″ said Jonathan Baskin, a professor of biology at California Polytechnic State University-Pomona. ″The real question is whether they are native to Big Bear.″

Baskin and Malcolm speculated that the fish could have come to the mountains with trout planted in nearby Big Bear Lake in the 1940s and ’50s.

″I’d also like to study what exactly happens to the fish in the winter when the creek freezes over,″ Malcolm said.

He attributes the species’ decline to urbanization of the Los Angeles basin.

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