The southern Appalachian mountains are among the most precious resources in the United States. Sheltered above most of the country, and possessing a wide variety of unique environments, countless imperiled American plant and animal species find a home tucked away in the mountains.
This is largely due to the temperate rainforest climate found along most of the ridge. However terrestrial mountainsides aren’t the only places that offer shelter to rare and important local species. In fact, the streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes found among the Appalachian mountains are critical habitats for aquatic organisms of all shapes and sizes.
Our mountain waterways are teeming with mussels, crawfish, snails and other water dwellers that are rare or non-existent elsewhere in the country. More familiar to most onlookers are the schools of fish that can be seen darting beneath the surface.
Mountain fish bring thousands of tourists to the area each year in their attempts to come into close contact with these wild beasts. Although many of our local tributaries are stocked with foreign trophies like brown and rainbow trout to help satisfy the needs of expectant fishermen, they are also home to a large amount of North American fish that can be difficult or impossible to find elsewhere
As with most aquatic organisms, fish began their journey of evolution extremely long ago, somewhere along the lines of 500 million years ago. Prehistoric fish developed a lot of critical organs and body types that made it possible for human life today.
Our eyes, jaws, skulls, spines, and even lungs are thought to be closely tied to our fishy ancestors, most likely air-breathing fish similar to lungfish who slowly crawled from the sea and adapted themselves to life on land.
In some ways, fish view the world similarly to how we do, since they are believed to have color vision with clarity rivaling our own. They also communicate frequently using acoustic signals, producing sounds through internal organs or by rubbing parts of their skeleton together.
The effects that aquatic noise pollution has on these subtle noises is largely unknown, but it will likely be a concern in the future since studies are revealing the depths to which human boat traffic is drowning out a wide amount of natural sounds.
Although they tend to have small brains, recent research has put a spotlight on the intelligence of these animals. Multiple species have passed the “mirror test,” quickly identifying their reflection as themselves rather than another creature. There have also been documented cases of tool-use among cod and other fish species, and a few studies even point to fish having a range of emotions available to them.
Research focused on their neural pain centers have recently found that contrary to popular belief, fish do feel pain, and their brains react in similar ways to our own when introduced to a painful stimulus. Future studies will undoubtedly uncover more links between ourselves and fish as we learn more about the inner workings of both.
The waters in this area are believed to be home to around 90 species of fish, with only a few being game fish like trout and bass.
Most of these species are native to the area, and local conservation groups keep a close eye on our native populations to help ensure minimal disruption from foreign introduced stocks. Many of our waterways are in the process of repair after being heavily disrupted by the paper and mining industries, and while a slow task, they are showing progress.
You can help by paying attention to what you put into your local waterways. In short, don’t put anything into them.
Brannen Basham is a writer and horticulturalist. Together with his wife, Jill Jacobs, he owns Spriggly’s Beescaping, focused on nature education and habitat restoration. He recently published his first book, “A Guide to the Wonderful World Around Us: Notes on Nature.” For more information visit www.sprigglys.com.