The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has "huge news" about a "small fish." And in case you aren't sufficiently excited about the fate of the endangered candy darter, the agency offered this all-caps headline on Thursday: "HATCHERY RAISED FISH THAT LOOKS LIKE A CANDY CANE RELEASED INTO WILD FOR FIRST TIME. 🍬"
The candy darter (Etheostoma osburni), listed as a federally protected endangered species in 2018 and included in WBOY's 2022 list of West Virginia's six "weirdest animals," is a festive-looking fish. And its red-and-green coloration — or orange and teal, but close enough — does resemble a candy cane, if candy canes were red, green, gold, and fish-shaped. But the news here is that a dedicated team of biologists at the White Sulphur Springs National Fish Hatchery in West Virginia just took a big step in ensuring the candy darter's survival.
"Candy darters are small, about two to three inches long, but play a large role in river ecosystems and food chains," U.S. Fish and Wildlife explains. And their habitat is under threat from rival species — notably the less-colorful variegate darters (Etheostoma variatum) — pollution, and other habitat degradation. Candy darters are also delicate fish, so biologists have had a hard time raising them in hatcheries.
Over the past two years, the White Sulphur Springs biologists have created a viable habitat, and this fall they tagged and released 21 healthy, hatchery-raised candy darters into a "suitable, high quality habitat" where they "can thrive while isolated from variegate darter invasion by a dam," U.S. Fish and Wildlife said. "This release marks the start of restoring this vibrant species back across Virginia and West Virginia streams and landscapes."
"It was a long time and a lot of hard work by so many people," said hatchery biologist Andrew Phipps. "To finally get to release these animals after watching them hatch and grow for the past six months is so rewarding." And if you squint, they kind of look like candy canes.