Introducing, the Choctaw bass.
Scientists with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have discovered a new species of black bass in the southeastern United States. The American Fisheries Society must approve the suggested name of the species for it to take effect, but that appears to be only a formality.
“We didn’t set out to find a new species,” Mike Tringali, the head of the genetics laboratory at the FFWCC’s Wildlife Research Institute, said in a May 7 release. “It found us.”
For decades, biologists and anglers had not realized this bass, which inhabits coastal river systems in the western Florida Panhandle and Alabama, was actually distinct from one of its relatives, the spotted bass.
The discovery process spawned from a 2007 genetic study on the Chipola River over concerns involving the possible introduction of shoal bass to the river.
“During our studies, a DNA signal came up that was different,” Tringali told OutdoorChannel.com. “As we set out to determine what it was, it became very clear that it was a look-alike, a mimic.”
After confirming the initial discovery, scientists searched for the same DNA profile in bass caught in nearby rivers to determine the species’ range. They found that the Choctaw bass inhabits coastal river systems in Alabama and along the western Florida panhandle, including the Choctawhatchee River.
After reinterpreting work done in 1940 by taxonomists Carl Hubbs and Reeve Bailey, scientists believe Choctaw bass could also occur in extreme southwest Alabama and southeast Mississippi, just west of the Mobile River Basin. Since 2012, they have been working to confirm this.
Typically, Choctaw bass have been found in the upper reaches of rivers and streams where sediment accumulates, avoiding stream headwaters and tidal zones found closer to the coast.
Scientists revealed the discovery at a meeting of the Southern Division of the American Fisheries Society earlier this year.
Discoveries of new fish species are uncommon but not overly rare. But most freshwater discoveries in the United States tend to be of darters and minnows found in caves and caverns.
“I would say this would be the biggest thing that has happened in my career,” Tringali said. “It’s definitely a proud moment for everyone here.”
The name Choctaw bass was chosen because of the species range overlaps that of the Choctaw Indians.
“As for our recommended scientific name, Micropterus haiaka,‘haiaka’ is a Choctaw word that means ‘revealed,’ ”Tringali said.
Usually mistaken for a spotted bass, the biggest Choctaw bass found so far by scientists have been about 15 inches in length. The physical differences between the Choctaw bass and spotted bass are not easily seen with the naked eye, one reason the Choctaw had never been discovered despite decades of bass studies in the region.
“We tend to look at overall patterns on fish, pigmentation, count scales and fins,” Tringali said. “(With the Choctaw bass) there were minor differences. Chiefly, those were the soft rays on the second dorsal fin and the soft rays on the anal fins.”
Tringali said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would publish their findings in book chapter on basses. The American Fisheries Society would review that later this year and confirm the new species was not already in place before it goes into effect.
A Choctaw bass. (Courtesy Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).