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Inside the Years-Long Global Effort to Save this Tiny Mexican Fish – Mother Jones


Inside the Years-Long Global Effort to Save this Tiny Mexican Fish – Mother Jones

The elusive tequila fish.Chester Zoo/Zuma Press

This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

At first glance, there’s nothing remarkable about Mexico’s tequila splitfin fish. Only two and a half inches long, the fish aren’t colorful or poisonous. They aren’t particularly fast. They don’t change colors or exhibit other strange behaviors. In many ways, they are forgettable. So when the fish, endemic to only a single spring-fed river near the Tequila volcano in the Mexican state of Jalisco, went extinct from the wild in 2003, there was no international outcry or even an article in a local newspaper to bid the fish adieu.

But scientists at Michoacán University’s Aquatic Biology Unit knew the tequila fish, as it is commonly called, played an important role in the river’s delicate ecosystem—eating dengue-spreading mosquitoes and serving as a food source for larger fish and birds. When it became clear the fish were dying off in the 1990s, an international team of scientists joined forces to save the fish. After the fish went extinct in 2003, the team would attempt something that had never been done before in Mexico—reintroduce an extinct species back into its native habitat. Now, almost two decades on, a thriving population of tequila fish, some 2,000 strong, once again call the Teuchitlán River home, swimming in the crystalline waters in the shadow of the tree-covered hillside.

The ambitious conservation translocation project began in 1998 when English aquarist Ivan Dibble arrived at Michoacán University with some very precious cargo—five pairs of tequila fish from England’s Chester Zoo. No one knows exactly why the tequila fish went extinct in the wild, but it was likely a combination of pollution and invasive species moving in, according to scientists at the zoo. In captivity, scientists could provide a controlled environment for the fish.

For 15 years, biologists at Michoacán University cared for the tequila fish. “At the beginning, all these people said we were crazy,” says…

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