Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program

Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program

Long Term Resource Monitoring



Smallmouth buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus) growth across a 1200km human use and ecological disturbance gradient in the Upper Mississippi River System

Ickes, B.S. 2020. Smallmouth buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus) growth across a 1200km human use and ecological disturbance gradient in the Upper Mississippi River System: A project completion report submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program from the U.S. Geological Survey, October 2020, 16 pgs.


Smallmouth buffalo (Ictiobus bubalus) is a common and widely distributed large-bodied species of the family Catostomidae. It inhabits large rivers and reservoirs of the eastern continental United States (east of the continental Divide) and is most abundant and common in the large rivers of the Midwest and Central Plains, though it does occur as far north and east as the Hudson Bay drainage and as far south and west as Arizona (Edwards and Twoney 1982). Historically, smallmouth buffalo were an important component of commercial fisheries on both the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. However, following the introduction of common carp (Cyprinus carpio) in the mid-1800s (Carlander 1954), the construction of a system of navigation dams on Upper Mississippi and Illinois River in the 1930s (USGS 1999), and water quality/pollution issues through the 1980s (Weiner 2010), the role of smallmouth buffalo in the overall UMRS fish community and commercial fishery has generally diminished relative to historical standards. Still, smallmouth buffalo remains an important and valued component of the UMRS commercial fishery.

The study area is represented by three study reaches on the Illinois River and three study reaches on the Upper Mississippi River (Figure 1). Collectively, these study reaches represent nearly 1200 river km and exist across strong and pronounced ecological and disturbance gradients. For example, habitat composition, water quality, commercial navigation intensity, aquatic plant prominence, and the number and abundance of nonnative fish species vary strongly across the study domain, with northern Mississippi River reaches exhibiting less navigation traffic, better water quality, markedly greater aquatic plant prominence, more diverse habitat composition, and comparably much smaller numbers of nonnative species than the lower Mississippi River study reach and those on the Illinois River (USGS 1999; Johnson and Hagerty [eds] 2008; Irons et al. 2009). Long term monitoring efforts conducted under the auspices of the Upper Mississippi River Restoration program over the past 27 years have provided tremendous insights into shifts and changes of the overall UMRS fish community (Ickes et al. 2005; Garvey et al. 2010; Schramm and Ickes 2016). However, these monitoring efforts observe only the most basic aspects of the UMRS fish community (i.e., catch, length, weight, distribution, and occurrence). To gain a greater understanding of forces driving community level shifts and changes, more directed study is needed on the functional attributes of fish populations (i.e., growth, mortality, recruitment). Collectively, these functional attributes of populations are termed population dynamics and/or vital rates. It is important to note, the population dynamics of fishes in large rivers is generally poorly understood, especially for non-game species (Ickes 2018).

The prevailing view is that abiotic factors largely govern inter-annual population dynamics, typically based upon rather short-term observations and correlations with assorted abiotic river attributes that vary on a seasonal or annual basis (for example, Risotto and Turner 1985). However, the role that longer-term abiotic factors play in regulating population abundance, or that biotic factors internal to the population (e.g., spawner-recruit dynamics, growth dynamics) or external to the population (e.g., predator-prey dynamics, sympatric competitors, disease) remain poorly understood.

Achieving a greater understanding of these dynamics is important for stock, game, and invasive species management. In 2017, as part of a larger study designed to gain vital population rate information for smallmouth buffalo in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers (“Smallmouth Buffalo population demographics of the Upper Mississippi River System”; UMRR LTRM 2018SOW project items 2018MMBF1-2018MMBF6) annual growth patterns in smallmouth buffalo were determined and evaluated. This was accomplished by measuring growth histories recorded in annual growth increments on hard bony parts (here otoliths), a method known generically as biochronology, and somewhat analogous to dendrochronology practiced by foresters. These methods allow one to generate time-series of annual growth histories that depend upon age, year class (i.e., cohort), and annual environmental conditions experienced by the population over time (Weisberg, 1993). Biochronology methods were used to develop a 36-year time series of smallmouth buffalo growth in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers across a 1200 km ecological and human use disturbance gradient. Annual growth intervals were identified and measured from otoliths to determine fish age and growth history

. A mixed model that parses the growth increment into age and year effects was fit to these data. Given the pronounced ecological and disturbance gradients inherent to the UMRS and the study domain, an a priori expectation of differing patterns in growth is accepted as a null hypothesis to test. The goal of this study was to model smallmouth buffalo growth as a function of the age of the fish and the growth year in which the growth was gained. The primary modeling objective was to parse growth observed on each annulus into a portion attributable to the age of the fish and the portion attributable to the year in which the growth was gained. In effect, this modeling approach removes the somewhat trivial age effects on growth so that a non-confounded growth year effect can be gained.

Results attributable to growth year provide a time series of growth information that is of the same duration as the oldest fish observed and solely reflects environmental influences on growth. These model responses can then be investigated relative to environmental covariate time-series suspected of influencing growth of smallmouth buffalo in the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers (e.g., temperature, discharge, population density, population mortality, forage availability, sympatric competition, habitat composition, navigation intensity, nonnative fish prominence, etc.). Thus, the primary scientific objective was to investigate if and how smallmouth buffalo growth varies in accordance with innate ecological and disturbance gradients across the study domain.

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