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Passage in Plains and Prairie Waterways and Predicting Fish Response to Climate Change

Project #: 4W3496
Start Date: 12/10/2010
End Date: 12/31/2012
Status: Completed

As described in the final report, the observation and field observations of the leaping abilities of various sturgeon species suggest that sturgeon species Vmax ability
might be under rated. For example, reports of adult gulf sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi) leaping 2 m or more above the water are common and adult white sturgeon
(Acipenser transmontanus) is well known to show explosive leaping behaviour when hooked by fisherman. The leaping ability demonstrated by sturgeon species and the observations of shovelnose sturgeon (a relatively small species of sturgeon) from this research suggests that sturgeon may be very capable of attaining high sprint swimming speeds when motivated.

Most fish demonstrate multiple peaks in swimming velocity during their swim. It is noteworthy that the peak swimming velocities of shovelnose sturgeon were only maintained for a fraction of a second before the fish returned to a slower swim speed. This pattern in quick burst swimming followed by slower swimming and gliding behaviour might reflect how sturgeon negotiate passage structures when highly motivated, illustrating the tendency to burst and then hold position on the substrate. The lack of difference in swimming capabilities at different temperatures is similar to that of lake sturgeon at burst swimming speeds. Temperature does not appear to have the same detectable effect on burst swimming as it has on the prolonged and sustained swims. The results of this study will provide additional data to support design and analysis of fish passage projects for shovelnose sturgeon and other sturgeon species.


Land transformation of native prairies to agrarian use has altered the natural connectivity of fish communities inhabiting prairie waterways. Our nation’s waterways are obstructed by an estimated 2.5 million aquatic barriers, those present in the prairies of Montana, and North and South Dakota alone run into the thousands. The predicted impacts of climate change will exacerbate the effect of aquatic barriers on landscape connectivity and further threaten aquatic organisms from fish to mussels. This proposed research aims to build on two existing projects underway 1) to improve fish passage and landscape connectivity for native species and 2) determine the thermal effects on fish species and their sensitivity to climate change effects. The techniques and equipment currently being developed to assess the swimming capacities and thermal adaptability of westslope cutthroat trout (ongoing and beginning July 2010) can be transferred to assess the passage and swimming capacities of prairie species such as pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus), shovelnose sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus), Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka), sturgeon chub (Macrhybopsis gelida), sauger (Sander canadensis) and others. The results of this study may be used to improve landscape connectivity, identify populations and habitats most at risk to climate change impacts and land use stressors, and develop conservation delivery options in response to science informed predictions and realities.


The objective of this research is to construct flumes and swim chambers for testing swimming performances of large and small bodied fish species, as well as construct a spawning channel for physiological assessments. In addition, using the newly constructed facilities, the project will characterize swimming performance of shovelnose sturgeon, rainbow trout and westslope cutthroat and evaluate the effect of temperature on swimming performance.


  • Matt Blank
    Matt Blank
  • Joel Cahoon
    Joel Cahoon
  • Thomas McMahon
    Thomas McMahon