The Stickleback--An Anonymous Fight for Survival in Wings of Nature’s Stage

Times Staff Writer

A vanishing breed of rare little fish is holed up in Soledad Canyon, threatened by bulldozers, biopolitics, their own lack of charisma and killer frogs.

The fish is called the unarmored threespine stickleback. One of 73 California plants and animals on the federal list of endangered species, it is a classic example of a creature pushed to the brink of extinction by a city’s growth.

“You’ve got to look in the water to find them,” Fish and Game Warden Warren Crooker said recently, pointing to the stickleback’s refuge in the Santa Clara River about 15 miles east of Saugus. “They’re kind of obscure. But if they die in this creek, they’re going to be extinct.”

Even in its native Los Angeles, the two-inch fish is the endangered creature nobody knows. But it is hardly alone in its anonymity. While a few well-known species wage their battle for existence in the limelight, the majority of the nation’s 368 officially endangered life forms face Armageddon with just a handful of human allies, most of them scientists and government employees.

Workings of Act

The story of the stickleback offers insight into the workings of the federal Endangered Species Act and into the plight of the hundreds of plain-jane species facing extinction.


Even in the official quest to preserve gene pools, it pays to be pretty, cuddly or majestic. The six native California condors known to exist in the wild are being kept aloft this year with more than $1 million from government and private agencies. They have a ground crew of 12 at the Condor Research Center in Ventura.

The stickleback, by comparison, received about $20,000 in public funds this year.

To a handful of scientists the little fish is just as interesting, just as precious, as the big bird. But theirs is the minority opinion. More typical is the view of Jo Anne Welch of Soledad Canyon. She thinks the stickleback is an overprivileged nuisance and does not hesitate to say so. “Stickleback fish!” she hooted. “They’re not even good bait!”

The last thing these fish needed was African clawed frogs.

“We discovered them in the critical habitat last year,” Ken Sasaki said as he searched the bottom of Santa Clara River in the Soledad Campground.

Pushing a seine ahead of him like a vacuum cleaner, Sasaki probed under the watercress in the willow-shaded side pools where male sticklebacks build their nests amid the algae and duckweed.

In a dozen sweeps of the creek, Sasaki pulled up half a dozen frisky Gasterosteus aculeatus williamsoni , including a three-inch, golden-olive female full of eggs and a smaller, silvery “courting” male with a tomato-red throat and turquoise flanks and eyes.

Sasaki dipped once more. There, clinging to the mesh, was what he feared and suspected he would find--a mottled brown frog, three inches across, with black claws poking from its webbed hind feet.

Sasaki squeezed its belly and decided that this particular frog had not eaten a stickleback recently. He said he could not tell until the autopsy whether it had eaten stickleback eggs.

Sasaki heads the six-man rescue squad that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established for the endangered stickleback, a rare variety that lacks the bony plates on its sides typical of most sticklebacks.

Game Plan for Miracle

As the fish’s legal guardians, the six men were asked to develop a game plan for a miracle. The result is the Unarmored Threespine Stickleback Recovery Plan. One of 214 government-authorized comeback plans, the document describes in bloodless jargon the sad state of the stickleback and strategies for keeping it on Earth.

Ever since the fish was declared endangered in 1970, its part-time protectors have watched with mounting alarm as African clawed frogs--a hardy, hungry variety that probably first escaped from a lab or pet store--took hold in Southern California and moved closer and closer to Soledad Canyon. The frog was originally imported in the 1940s for use in pregnancy testing, before it was discovered that rabbits or native frogs would do as well.

The recovery plan says the frog could be the most devastating of all the fish’s predators. And it stresses the importance of keeping the frog out of the fish’s “essential habitat,” the stream where Sasaki stood, cool water slopping into his waders.

Since 1974 the frogs have been multiplying in spring-fed ponds in Agua Dulce Canyon, just north of the fish’s refuge. Fearful that winter floods would create a water bridge to the stickleback’s creek, Fish and Game has tried for years to keep their numbers in check by trapping them in minnow traps baited with liver and chicken necks. As evidenced by the plump specimen that Sasaki found, the effort has failed.

“I think this could be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said James A. St. Amant, another Fish and Game biologist and the team’s clawed frog expert.

St. Amant keeps six of the frogs in his home aquariums in Long Beach, carefully segregating them from creatures, including their tadpoles, that will fit into their mouths.

What worries him is not the superfrog’s indiscriminate appetite, its ability to mimic the color of its surroundings or the fact that it can live comfortably in a cesspool.

What is really scary, he said, is that the frogs are exotics--non-native creatures that often destroy local wildlife when they enter a new environment.

“An introduced species either doesn’t make it or it takes off like gang busters,” St. Amant said. “They either die or they take over because the other animals in the new ecosystem haven’t evolved to compete with them.”

Fish and Game has poisoned the frogs, boiled them where they swam with a device that looks like a steam cleaner and zapped them with electricity. When threatened, the frogs burrow to safety or simply hop away--obviously not an option for a stickleback.

“We’d kill most of the adults and come back later and find their ponds full of tadpoles,” St. Amant said. “The most effective method we’ve found for eliminating them is to dry up the pond and cover it with salt, but that has very limited practical applications. People have recommended releasing alligators and caimans to go after them, but the cure would be worse than the disease.”

Clawed frogs are now turned away at the state line, as are piranhas, stingrays, snapping turtles and crocodiles. There is little that can be done about those already here.

Partly as a result of the frog invasion, the government last spring changed the stickleback’s official status from moderately threatened with extinction to highly threatened.

Nobody has a longer view of the stickleback than recovery team member Camm C. Swift, curator of fishes at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Swift recently identified tiny fossilized bones from the La Brea Tar Pits as those of a relatively unarmored stickleback. That means a williamsoni- like fish swam here 20,000 years ago, a contemporary of the mastodon, saber-toothed tiger and giant condor.

In a lab office filled with jars of pickled fish, Swift explained that unarmored sticklebacks were abundant in the rivers of the Los Angeles Basin as late as World War I. But, as he pointed out, freshwater fish are always at greater risk of extinction than ocean varieties. Lowland species like the stickleback are especially vulnerable because they share their habitat with humans.

The single worst affront to the stickleback, the event that meant they could never go home again, was the paving of most of the streams in the Los Angeles Basin in the 1950s. As Sasaki said, “Sticklebacks, among other things aquatic, can’t live in concrete rivers.”

Today most of the world’s remaining williamsoni --no one knows how many--inhabit the 8 1/2-mile stretch of the Santa Clara that runs from Arrastre Canyon near the river’s headwaters down to River’s End Park, near a catfish farm.

As sanctuaries go, the stickleback’s is not much. In summer much of the stream becomes a winding ribbon of damp patches on the parched floor of Soledad Canyon. Flash floods scour the canyon in winter. Southern Pacific tracks run close to the creek, creating the potential for a toxic spill that could wipe out the population.

Then there are the weird obstacles to the stickleback’s survival, such as a herd of movie elephants owned by actress Tippi Hedren that sometimes stomp through the stream, oblivious as only elephants can be to small fish and their fragile nests.

The stickleback’s creek is almost all on private land, but about a mile of it runs through Soledad Campground, part of Angeles National Forest. Here, at least, the fish are safe from rogue tractors and indifferent landowners.

Most of the $20,000 spent on the stickleback each year is in the form of Forest Service activity.

“We plant willows along the creek to provide them with shade and cover,” said Steve Bear, the Forest Service’s man on the recovery team. “We transplant watercress. When groups come to us and say they want to do a project, we ask them to improve the stickleback’s habitat. We put piles of rocks and logs out and encourage visitors to make little rock dams or stream diversions that create meanders in the creek. These break the force of the current and result in the areas of slow but steady flow that the fish prefer.”

Three times a year forest rangers dip their nets into the creek at 100-meter intervals to assess the health of the stickleback community. On April 11 an afternoon’s fishing netted four sticklebacks, no cause for alarm but fewer than expected.

“We were real disappointed,” Ranger Joe Millar said.

Through human intermediaries, the stickleback participates in a political process that largely determines how much public funding it gets, money that can determine its survival or extinction.

For fiscal 1985 the fish competed with all of the other endangered and threatened species and subspecies in California for $500,000 in supplemental federal funds given to the state under Section 6 of the Endangered Species Act. For the second year in a row, williamsoni got nothing.

To some extent, the distribution of conservation funds is a beauty contest. Gorgeous is better, especially when it comes to raising money from private organizations and individuals.

“I can get all sorts of money for whooping cranes,” said Jim Johnson, Fish and Wildlife’s vanishing-species man in Albuquerque, N.M. “If it’s got fur or feathers and you can stroke it and it’s pretty, its chances for funding are good. If it’s cold, wet, slimy, small or poisonous, its chances for funding are much reduced.

“We used to have a joke--a procedure for getting money for creatures--that asked such questions as: ‘Would you bring one on a date?’ ”

As Fish and Game biologist Darlene McGriff explained, government agencies have systematic procedures for evaluating, more or less equitably, the competing claims of the endangered community.

The government designates each endangered species with an official “recovery priority number.” The smaller the number, the more compelling the need. By basing financing recommendations on these numbers, Fish and Wildlife seeks to ensure that public rescue money does not all go automatically to creatures that look good on stamps.

The big winner this year in California, in fact, was the bonytail chub, an unlovely two- to three-inch minnow indigenous to the Colorado River. It had the highest recovery priority number of any species in the state, a 2C. It received $60,000 of the supplemental funds.

The bonytail was deemed a 2C by a formula that weighs how threatened it is (highly), its chances for recovery (good) and its scientific significance (it is a distinct species).

The C stands for conflict. It alerts the money givers that there is no time to waste. The environmental barbarians--water projects in the case of the chub--are at the gates.

The state had no top-priority native creatures in contention. The only life forms eligible for 1s are examples of what scientists call a monotypic genus--one that exists alone among its kind, without any close relatives.

Newer Designation

The hawksbill sea turtle is a 1. The California condor, an imposing example of a monotypic genus, is only a 4 because its chances of recovery are so poor. In fighting extinction, as in other wars, it is sometimes necessary to perform triage.

For 1985 a creature needed a 9 or less to get Section 6 money in California. The stickleback’s 12, reflecting a moderate degree of threat, low recovery potential and the fact that it is only a subspecies, was not plaintive enough. Its new, more urgent designation, a 6, presumably will improve its chances for next year.

Despite the wildlife establishment’s attempt to democratize survival, some animals remain more equal than others. Congress handed out almost $2 million in “add-ons” as part of its 1985 appropriation of $27.65 million for endangered species. The money went to the woodland caribou, the peregrine falcon, the California condor, the sea otter and a group of threatened Hawaiian forest birds--big or beautiful, furred or feathered, every one.

The people who value the unarmored threespine stickleback most are the scientists who know the most about it.

“Studying sticklebacks is my way of understanding how nature functions,” Michael Bell, 37, a professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said recently. Bell, who grew up in Sherman Oaks, first encountered the fish almost 20 years ago in the Nevada desert in the form of 10-million-year-old fossils. Since then he has become “Dr. Stickleback U.S.A.,” fellow biologists say.

In the early 1970s Bell and Jonathan Baskin of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona did most of the blue-jean biology on which the recovery plan is based. “Some of my fondest recollections are of wading around in creeks,” said Bell, who often worked with his girlfriend, Bonnie, now his wife.

Some people might think of Bell’s as a narrow preoccupation. But the stickleback has been his entrance into a worldwide community of scholars that sometimes finds the answers to large, even profound questions in the study of the fish.

Bell was still an undergraduate when he read the pioneering work on stickleback behavior by Nikolaas Tinbergen, the Dutch biologist who observed threespine sticklebacks in local ditches as a child and continued to find them intriguing as an adult.

Courtship Dance

Tinbergen was the first to describe the zigzag courtship dance of the stickleback males, their territoriality and their zealous tending of the young. That body of knowledge continues to grow. As Bell pointed out, recent studies show that, while most stickleback males breed in the classic way Tinbergen described, there is also a low road to triumph in the competition of sperm.

“At the time of mating, there are occasionally these wimpy males that sneak in with the nesting male and female and fertilize the eggs,” Bell said. “So without the burden of paternity, really, they can produce offspring. Such males are called sneakers, and worse things.”

During the 1930s Tinbergen noticed that the sticklebacks in an aquarium on the windowsill of his lab became agitated when the red mail truck passed. That frenzied response to a red truck prompted Tinbergen to do something few observers of animal behavior had done before. He began to experiment.

By dropping objects of various shapes and colors in the aquariums, he established that the color red made the females sexy and the males combative, even when it was a red blob of sealing wax instead of a courting male’s throat. Thus Tinbergen was able to rule out such plausible alternative explanations for the response as the courting male’s shape or scent. In 1973 he was given a Nobel Prize for his part in pioneering a genuine science of ethology, or animal behavior.

Bony Structures

Bell’s own special interest is the evolution of bony structures in sticklebacks. In a species noted for its boniness, williamsoni, with its three short spines and lack of side plates, is as intriguing as the shortest tribe in a race of giants.

“The unarmored threespine stickleback has one of the lowest plate counts reported anywhere in the world,” Bell said. Others have as many as 36 bony plates per side. “Someone like me needs cases like this to provide us with insights into evolutionary mechanisms.”

Nobody knows why williamsoni evolved without bony plates. The most popular theory is that the answer is related to the predators in its habitat.

Large fish such as trout eat sticklebacks with few or no plates in preference to seven-plated ones. So it is no surprise that seven-plated fish are more common than plateless ones in streams full of trout.

But Bell and others believe williamsoni evolved in the shallow upper Santa Clara, in the absence of big fish. Over time, most biologists agree, creatures lose structures they do not need. “The general evolutionary idea is that if you can do without a structure, you’re better off not developing it and putting your energy into something else, like more eggs,” Jonathan Baskin explained. If the only function of side plates is to discourage non-existent enemies, a stickleback would ultimately lose them.

But having few or no plates may do more than save energy. Platelessness may improve the fish’s chances of surviving long enough to reproduce, the crucial “payoff” in evolution, as Bell termed it.

Two large insects with pincers prey on the small fish of the upper Santa Clara. “It may be easier for predatory insects to catch fish with plates,” said Bell, making an educated guess as to why williamsoni has none.

While Bell ponders how the stickleback lost its plates, other scientists such as biologist James Malcolm look at how platelessness affects the fish’s behavior.

“Sticklebacks are feisty little fish,” said Malcolm, who teaches at the University of Redlands. Using the method pioneered by Tinbergen, Malcolm has found that williamsoni are feistiest of all. He put a stickleback confined to a glass flask into aquariums containing sticklebacks of varying plate counts. “If the resident of the aquarium was an unplated fish, it directed more attacks at the intruder than plated residents did,” he said.

In other studies, Malcolm said, “we found that some of our unplated fish would actually bite the tail of a garter snake, which isn’t a very smart thing to do. This aggressiveness might be advantageous when competing with other male sticklebacks for territory or females but could count against them in reaction to predators.”

Many environmentalists are committed to the survival of every remaining species. “My metaphysical feeling about this is that it’s just not right to cause things to disappear from the earth,” Bell said. “It’s just not right.”

But if williamsoni vanishes, Bell, Malcolm and other scientists will suffer a particular loss as well. They will lose forever any chance to discover how this creature’s unique structure relates to its reproductive success, a question basic to every species’ survival. Although no one has found it yet, the answer is waiting in Soledad Canyon.

“I just wish they were edible,” Guy Welch said of the williamsoni that are making his life miserable. “I love fish.”

Among humans, Welch, 64, is a contender for stickleback Enemy No. 1.

In 1981 he was twice charged with violating Section 5515 of the California Fish and Game Code. “They cited me for harassing the stickleback fish!” Welch said, his disbelief still audible four years later.

For 27 years Welch has owned and operated White Rock Camp, a 12-acre trailer and recreation park downstream from Soledad Campground. Its principal attraction is a man-made swimming hole for permanent guests and day-trippers who come here on summer weekends to enjoy the harsh beauty of the canyon.

Until 1981 Welch regularly dredged the pond, which is fed by the Santa Clara, unaware that the minnow-like fish he sometimes saw in it were anything special. He was furious the first time a game warden advised him that the two-inch stickleback had legal rights that conflicted with his own.

“I was angry,” Welch recalled. “I am part Indian. . . . I soldiered in two wars. I hit every rank in the book, from private to captain. I got a battlefield commission in France, and there’s no better American, I don’t believe, than I. And I always felt I earned my right to do business. And when you have some silly jerk come on your property and arrest you, or cite you, for working on your own land, there’s something that goes against everything that you know.”

In his first tangle with the stickleback, Welch insisted on a jury trial. Charges were dropped after the trial ended in a split decision in Newhall Municipal Court. “Stickleback 6, Man 6,” the headline in the Newhall Signal said.

Welch was in court again in June, 1983, charged with actually killing sticklebacks. Welch insists that the dead fish succumbed upstream and floated down to incriminate him. But he pleaded no contest--on the advice, he said, of his attorney and the judge. He was put on probation for a year.

What infuriates Welch is the absurdity of his tiny adversary. Even sillier than sticklebacks are the public servants paid to “baby-sit” them, he said.

“I think somebody got an idea, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to preserve the stickleback fish,’ and they’ve built a little empire,” he said.

“I saw a man run up and down this stream with a little butterfly net trying to catch these little things and investigate them. . . . I saw them build little cages with rock. . . . They were building little homes for the stickleback fish!”

Assistance of Public

The stickleback recovery plan officially acknowledges how vital ordinary citizens such as the Welches are to the fish’s survival and recommends: “The public should . . . be made aware of the existence and endangered status of the fish, and public sympathies solicited for its preservation.”

But the Welches said that all they have ever been told about the stickleback is to leave it alone. In dozens of official visits to the Welches, in all of the stern letters from the Forest Service and Fish and Game, no one ever told them about its particular merits, they said.

According to St. Amant, the recovery team plans seminars for the residents of Soledad Canyon. It also hopes to acquire more of the stickleback’s habitat. So far, it has not had the time or money.

The Welches said that they would never actually kill the fish, but they would not mind a bit if it became extinct.

“This old world has evolved for millions of years,” Welch said. “When that disappears, something else will come. There’s always something else that takes its place. It keeps going.”

The Welches simply do not regard the stickleback as worthy of special treatment.

“The condor, fine,” Welch said. “It’s a big bird, the last of its species.” His wife agreed. “Now that’s way different,” she said. “That’s something beautiful. That’s something that people can see.”