VHCC students dissect non-native fish to study habitat changes

Herald Courier –

Students at Virginia Highlands Community College are learning that fish bones can be good storytellers.

Nearly 40 students — not all of them biology majors — dissected fish recently in search of a special type of ear bone called an otolith, which can reveal the age of fish.

The purpose of the research project is to learn more about the population growth of the mountain redbelly dace, a fish that has been discovered in the streams at Hungry Mother State Park that is not native to the area. Its presence there has worried some conservationists, who hope to preserve native fish populations by keeping the mountain redbelly dace confined to its natural habitats.

The project is an ongoing collaboration with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and Virginia Highlands Community College.

According to Dr. Kevin Hamed, a biology instructor at the community college who is leading the study, efforts have been made in the past two years to collect and remove mountain redbelly dace from an unnamed tributary that feeds into Hungry Mother Reservoir. While mountain redbelly dace are abundant in other river systems in Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia, they have occasionally made their way into other ecosystems, likely with the help of fishermen who use them as live bait.

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