(Photo : courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation/Brad Probst)
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service is considering an 18-year conservation project aimed at saving the grotto sculpin, a small fish found mostly in cave streams and only within Perry County, Missouri.
Sculpins, as a group, have flattened, scaleless bodies, small eyes, wide mouths, enlarged pectoral fins and large heads that tapers abruptly into a comparatively slender body, which measures approximately 2.5 to 4 inches.
The overall color of the fish, which lays about 200 eggs during the late winter-early spring spawning season, is light tan to bleached tan, with an unpigmented underside.
The wildlife agency says it will cost between $140,000 and $4 million to preserve the species, which was discovered by a college student back in 1991 and is currently not on the federal list of endangered species.
From now until June 6, the FWS is holding an open comment period, during which members of the public to weigh-in one the sculpin-saving effort.
The primary cause of concern for the bottom-dwelling critters is the potential for contamination of the fish's habitat through the seepage of groundwater into the state's extensive system of sinkholes and underground caves, karsts, according to the FWS.
The wide range in potential costs for the effort is based on whether or not the cave ecosystem is officially designated a critical habitat, with the lower costs associated with listing the fish as threatened or endangered.
FWS biologists documented two mass die-offs in the cave systems in the last decade because of pollution from a single source entering groundwater, according to the Associated Press.
The City of Perryville currently manages about 400 sinkholes to prevent contamination and sediment from hurting underground ecosystems.
In 2013, genetic testing showed that the grotto sculpin was different enough from the banded sculpin, which is generally found in outdoor freshwater streams and other water bodies, to deserve its own scientific name.
If placed on the Federal Endangered Species list, the fish would be called "specus."