Chester Zoo

Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio hails Chester Zoo’s conservation efforts as ‘extinct’ fish returns to the wild

Posted: 29th November, 2022
  • Leonardo DiCaprio praises work of zoo and its conservation partners for ‘bringing rare fish species back from the dead’
  • After vanishing from the wild 30 years ago, the zoo’s conservationists helped to release the golden skiffia fish back into the Teuchitlán River in Mexico
  • The 1,200 fish were returned to the river following the success of a conservation breeding programme that prevented the fish from becoming globally extinct

The team, made up of global experts from the UK, North and Latin America, released 1,200 golden skiffia into the Teuchitlán River in central-western Mexico, where the fish had not been seen since the 1990s. The group of golden skiffia had been successfully bred by aquarists who created a conservation breeding programme that prevented the fish from becoming globally extinct.

With one in three freshwater fish threatened with extinction, they are the most threatened group of vertebrates on the planet.

The reintroduction of the fish coincided with the country’s Day of the Dead celebrations – where families honour their departed ancestors and welcome them back from the dead.

Omar Domínguez-Domínguez, a professor and researcher from the Michoacan University of Mexico, who is leading the golden skiffia reintroduction, said:

“The Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican celebration, when it is believed that people’s deceased ancestors return to the land of the living for one night, to talk and spend time with their families. Releasing the golden skiffia at this time is a metaphor for how the species has come back from the dead to return to its home, not for one night, but forever.

“Releasing this species back into the wild is a light of hope for this wonderful family of fishes - the goodeids - and for the conservation of freshwater fish more generally. Knowing that universities, zoos and aquarists can come together to fix some of what has been destroyed and return to nature some of what has been lost is an amazing thing.”

Human disturbance caused by dam construction, water extraction, pollution and the introduction of invasive species have caused major changes to the skiffia’s habitat - pushing it to extinction in its only known home. But in 2014, scientists from the Michoacan University of Mexico and passionate fishkeepers from the Goodeid Working Group helped restore the degraded habitat and remove non-native species from the Teuchitlán ecosystem.

Conservationists hope that the fish being released will ultimately result in a healthy, self-sustaining population that can fulfil its important natural role in the ecosystem of eating algae and mosquito larvae, which helps keep populations of those species in check.

Paul Bamford, Regional Programme Manager for Latin America at Chester Zoo, added:

“This project is a great example of how zoos can contribute to conservation in the field through conservation breeding and research, utilising the skills and experience that have been developed in zoos to help strengthen existing and new wild populations. By supporting freshwater conservation in Mexico and the ecosystems where the fish live, we’re not only protecting biodiversity and the wellbeing of freshwater environments, but also the people and communities that live alongside them.”

The golden skiffia release comes just a few years after the successful reintroduction of the tequila splitfin, which faced very similar threats to the golden skiffia and was also prevented from extinction as a result of a conservation action by experts from Chester Zoo and its partners. Following a successful reintroduction into the Teuchitlán River, the population of tequila splitfin is now thriving and the project has been cited as an International Union for the Conservation of Nature case study for successful global reintroductions.

Bringing the species back from the ‘dead’ is the result of collaborative efforts between experts from Chester Zoo, Michoacan University of Mexico, Goodeid Working Group, Re:wild and SHOAL who are developing a plan to save Mexican goodeid species - one of the world’s most threatened group of fish - which includes the golden skiffia and tequila splitfin.

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