The Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon may as well be a phantom.
Topping out at just over two feet long and weighing a little more than two pounds, it is the world’s smallest species of sturgeon. Found only in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan along the middle and lower reaches of the Syr Darya and Kara Darya rivers, a living example of this gray-backed, white-bellied fish hasn’t been seen in more than half a century.
Preserved specimens of Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeons
Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute Science Program Manager Dr. Bernard Kuhajda is one of the only scientists in North America who have studied the Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon, but all his research was of preserved specimens at Russian biological museums.
“I know a lot about pickled Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon in jars, but I know nothing about Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon swimming around in the Syr Darya,” he says.
Thanks to its extreme elusiveness and extensive damming and irrigation projects along the Syr Darya, the Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is thought by some scientists to be extinct.
But Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), an Austin, Texas-based environmental non-profit, isn’t content to wonder whether the Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon is gone or is merely swimming under the radar. They’re mounting an expedition to try to find one.
The Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon has been singled out by GWC as part of The Search for Lost Species, a worldwide series of expeditions to try and rediscover 25 species — 24 animals and one plant — that have been missing, collectively, for more than 1,500 years.
The Search for Lost Species poster, featuring art by Alexis Rockman
These “Most Wanted” selections were culled from a list of more than 1,200 species nominated by members of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission Specialist Groups. The targets of the expedition were chosen for their charisma, quirkiness or sheer elusiveness and are considered to be “flagships for conservation.”
The Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon’s status as the world’s smallest sturgeon, its cultural relevance to Tajikistan (where it has been featured on a national stamp) and the possibility of protecting the habitat for any remaining fish discovered by the expedition elevated it to being a flagship species, writes Robin Moore, GWC’s director of communications, in an emailed response.
A preserved specimen of a Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon
“The end goal of this campaign is to catalyze conservation actions,” he says. “If the rediscovery of the sturgeon could potentially lead to the creation of a new protected area, this provides a solid conservation goal to the quest to find it.”
The targeted animals on the Search for Lost Species represent a wide variety of taxonomic groups, including the Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo (last seen in 1928), the Fernandina Galapagos Tortoise (missing since 1906) and Wallace’s Giant Bee (AWOL since 1981).
The diversity of the selected species was intentional and reflects a fundamental goal of the project, Moore writes.
"Biodiversity comes in all shapes and sizes, but we tend to give the lion’s share of attention to a few of the most charismatic species,” he says. “Species cannot be saved in isolation, and I think it’s important to frame conversations about conservation in the context of us being a part of a bigger, interconnected system.
“In order to maintain the integrity of the ecosystems upon which all life relies, we need to protect biodiversity in all its forms. And the fact that our attention tends to be focused so heavily on so few species actually provides an opportunity to tell fascinating stories about some of the lesser-known species.”
The Search for Lost Species is currently in a fundraising phase with an initial goal of $500,000. Despite being in the early planning stages, the GWC already has reached out to scientists like Dr. Kuhajda who have studied the targeted species to head the future expeditions.
Dr. Bernie Kuhajda holding a Lake Sturgeon
If the trip is funded, Dr. Kuhajda will lead a team to Kazakhstan to try to find the Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon and determine, once and for all, whether reports of its extinction have been greatly exaggerated.
They may fail to recover any sturgeon, Dr. Kuhajda admits, but even an unsuccessful search could still bear fruit in offering scientists a much-needed, first-hand examination of the state of the Syr Darya and any habitat degradation that has occurred there. Even if the Syr Darya Shovelnose Sturgeon has, in fact, gone extinct, this expedition will help lay the groundwork for conservation efforts in the region to ensure other species don’t follow in its wake.
Many scientists agree that human activity has initiated the earth’s sixth mass extinction event, resulting in species disappearing at rates far exceeding the norm for the fossil record. As such, Dr. Kuhajda adds, The Search for Lost Species could serve an even broader purpose in raising greater awareness of how humans are impacting animal life on a global scale.
“With the continued explosion in our human population and the growing threat of climate change, we'll do nothing but see an accelerated rate of extinctions in the future,” he says. “Highlighting these 25 species — even realizing the chances could be slim of rediscovering them —drives home the point that extinction means forever.”