MEXICO CITY Once there was a small fish called Tequila Splitfin or Zoogoneticus Tequila. It swam in a river in Mexico but vanished in the 1990s. Scientists and residents managed to return a species that had been extinct in the wild but was kept in captivity to preserve its natural habitat.
Its success is now intertwined in the community’s identity and is being celebrated internationally.
It all started in Teuchitln, a small town near the Tequila volcano, more than twenty years ago. Omar Domnguez was one of the students who became concerned about the tiny fish that could fit in the palms of their hands and had never been seen in the Teuchitln River. It was gone from local waters due to pollution, human activities, and the introduction non-native species.
Domnguez, now 47 years old, is a researcher at University of Michoacn. He says that back then, only the elderly knew about the fish called gallito (or little rooster) because of its orange tail.
Conservationists from the Chester Zoo in England, and other European institutions, arrived in 1998 to help establish a laboratory for Mexican fish conservation. Domnguez stated that they brought several pairs of tequila-splitfin fish from collectors’ aquariums.
Domnguez and his associates gambled on reintroducing the fish to the Teuchitln. Within a few years, they were reproducing in aquariums. They said it was impossible and that they would die if we returned them.
They began to look for other options. They created an artificial pond as a semi-captivity station and put 40 pairs of birds there in 2012.
Two years later, there were approximately 10,000 fish. The Chester Zoo was the first to provide funding. A dozen other organizations, including those from Europe, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, also contributed to the funding.
They examined parasites, microorganisms, competition and interactions with predators.
The goal was to restore the fragile equilibrium. For this part, the key was not scientists but local residents.
I was apprehensive when I started the environmental education program. Domnguez stated that they did not listen to me at first.
Conservationists persevered with patience and years of puppet plays, games and explanations about how zoogoneticus is beneficial for the environment and health. The fish also help to control mosquitoes that spread dengue.
Zoogy was a nickname some residents came up with for the little fish. They made caricatures of the River Guardians and formed them, mostly children. They collect trash, clean the river, and remove invasive plants.
Domnguez stated that although it is difficult to determine if the water quality has improved because there are no comparable data, the ecosystem has seen improvements. The river is cleaner, there is a smaller number of non-native species, and cattle are no more allowed to drink in certain areas.
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The fish multiplied quickly in their floating cages. The fish were then marked so they could easily be tracked and set free. It was late 2017, and the population had increased by 55 percent in six months. The fish had moved to another section of the river last month.
It is difficult and time-consuming to reintroduce extinct species into nature. Przewalskis horse, and the Arabian oryx, are two examples of successful examples. The Chester Zoo announced Dec. 29th that the tequila-splitfin had joined this small group.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has cited the project as an example of successful global reintroductions. Recent scientific studies have confirmed that the fish are healthy and are already breeding in the river.
Gerardo Garca (zoos curator for lower vertebrates/invertebrates) said that this is a crucial moment in the fight for species conservation.
The IUCN’s red list of endangered species includes the tequila splitfin. Mexico’s freshwater ecosystems are under threat from over-extraction of water resources, pollution, and other factors. According to a 2020 report by the IUCN and the ABQ BioPark, more than one-third (536) species of freshwater fish in Mexico are at risk of extinction.
Domnguez, his team and Mexican fisherman Juan Carlos are working on a species of fish that is currently extinct in Mexico: the skiffia frasense. The Golden Skiffia could one day join Zoogy in Teuchitln.
MARA VERZA Associated Press