Tracking Bhutan’s Big, Iconic Fishes

Researchers Michael and Marlis Douglas, both professors in the Department of Biological Sciences, recently spent a month in Bhutan studying migratory patterns of large riverine fishes. Michael holds the 21st Century Chair in Global Change Biology and Marlis holds the Bruker Professorship in Life Sciences. Below they write about their work in this unique Himalayan environment.  

Michael and Marlis Douglas in Bhutan

In Bhutan, hydropower is an economic boon. Rivers that drain from the Himalayas to the plains of northern India are being dammed to generate power for the landlocked country. But dams alter flow, sediment and thermal regimes of rivers, and can also prevent movements of fishes to feeding and spawning areas.

We spent a month in Bhutan studying the migration of large riverine fishes, from rivers in the plains, to headwaters and back again. We focused on two species in particular: the chocolate and golden mahseer. (The golden mahseer, pictured above, is one of the eight auspicious icons associated with Himalayan Buddhism and thus a fish with strong religious and cultural significance.)

Our research, which is ongoing, was done in collaboration with researchers from the Fisheries Conservation Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund (Bhutan) and Bhutan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The fish are captured by angling, surgically implanted with radio transmitters and released back into the river. The unique radio signals are recorded as tagged fish pass solar-powered receiving stations along tributary banks.

Back at the University of Arkansas, research in our lab complements the radio-tracking study by comparing relatedness among adult fishes in large rivers with juveniles in tributaries, presumably the spawning area of both mahseer species. The work involves extracting DNA from fin clips, then comparing the genetic similarity of adult fishes that migrate to specific headwaters with the juveniles that are found there, and determining if these values differ when compared to other tributaries. The research could indicate whether mahseer migrate upstream long distances to spawn at specific locations, similar to Pacific salmon of western North America.

We also took part in education and outreach efforts while in Bhutan, giving seminars and workshops at the World Wildlife Fund’s Bhutan headquarters, and at offices and research centers of the Royal Government of Bhutan. We will make presentations at an international conference on the golden mahseer to be held in Bhutan at end of 2017. The lab is funded in part through endowments provided to the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.

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