<p>Reimann's snake-necked turtle, a New Guinea native, has a seven-inch-long shell and strong jaws to crunch snails, and it smells like a skunk. "Not the prettiest snakeneck by a long way," says one scientist.</p> <p><i>Chelodina reimanni</i></p>

Reimann's snake-necked turtle, a New Guinea native, has a seven-inch-long shell and strong jaws to crunch snails, and it smells like a skunk. "Not the prettiest snakeneck by a long way," says one scientist.

Chelodina reimanni

Silent Streams

Freshwater animals are vanishing faster than those on land or at sea. But captive-breeding programs hold out hope.

This is a strange sort of ark: a brick warehouse in Knoxville, Tennessee. Not only will the thing never float, but the life-changing flood is all inside, where water pours day and night from a maze of pipes into 600 glass aquariums and plastic tubs stacked to the ceiling. The passengers, most just a few inches long, are fish: madtoms and darters, topminnows and chub. For them the carefully filtered, aerated water offers the breath of life, whereas their natural homes—streams and rivers in the southeastern United States—are choked by dams and clouded with pollutants. The fish aboard the ark are among the last of their kind.

At the helm, sharing the role of Noah, are J. R. Shute of North Carolina and Pat Rakes of Arkansas, who met at graduate school in the mid-1980s. They've been splashing around streams and keeping aquariums since they were boys. Now they've managed to transform a boyhood passion into an unusual profession. Freshwater animals are under siege all over the planet, and the species-rich Southeast is no exception. At their Knoxville nonprofit, Conservation Fisheries, Inc. (CFI), Shute and Rakes are trying to keep some of the rarest species alive.

This is not like raising goldfish or guppies. Among the ark's passengers is the diamond darter, an imperiled sandbar dweller; it has proved so sensitive to disturbance that the biologists observe it in its aquarium only through a remote video monitor. Another darter, the Conasauga logperch, swims in a tank nearby. Its only known habitat is the Conasauga River in Georgia and Tennessee, whose waters have long been polluted and silted up by farms and factories. The Conasauga might still hold 200 of these fish, or it might not, but the three recent arrivals here are the only ones in captivity. Everyone at CFI is hoping they don't turn out to be the same sex so they can pair off. No effort will be spared to give them the arrangement of sand, gravel, or little rock shelters that might inspire intimate relations.

Read This Next

The stories I learned walking the Burma Road in China
How COVID-19 harms the heart
How to keep the red wolf from going extinct for a second time

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet