Long-Lost Leopard Barbel Fish Rediscovered in Turkey

Protecting freshwater species and habitats is good for the planet.

rediscovered Leopard barbel fish in a tank..

(Photo by Metin Yoksu)

The leopard barbel fish, a carp-like spotted freshwater fish, was once abundant and lived in the Tigris Euphrates river system from Turkey to Iraq. Over the past few decades, habitat destruction, overfishing, pollution, and the construction of dams have taken a toll on its numbers, pushing it into near extinction, according to a undefined from the Re:wild organization.

The last time the fish was scientifically documented was in 2011 but evidence from local fisherman made scientists believe that the fish still lived in the waters of Eastern Turkey.  This led to the rediscovery of the long-lost leopard Barbel fish in the Tigris river.

Since 25 percent of freshwater fish are at risk for extinction, this discovery gives hope that other fish can be rediscovered too. Re:wild and the freshwater fish conservationist group SHOAL have compiled a list of over 300 freshwater fish species that have disappeared. They can now strike the leopard barbel from the list.

“There is nothing quite like the feeling of finding that a species that has been pushed to the brink of extinction is still hanging on, despite the odds,” Cüneyt Kaya, associate professor at Recep Tayyip Erdogan University and member of the expedition team said in the press release. “It is even more thrilling than discovering a new species because it means that we can give a rare species a second chance.”

The expedition that led to the rediscovery
After receiving tips from the local fishermen that the leopard barbel fish could still be in the river, a team of the local fisheries aquaculture department, Kaya, Münevver Oral, assistant professor at Recep Tayyip Erdogan University, and local fisherman was formed to search for the elusive fish, reported EchoWatch.

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Then, Mehmet Ülkü, a fisherman in Cizre , found a fish with prominent spotted markings and believed it may be the species that the team was searching for. Ülkü kept the fish alive in a tank and while he waited for the scientists, he caught a second fish in his nets.
“We dropped everything and would have gone to the ends of the Earth to see this fish, this legend, alive in the wild,” Oral told EchoWatch. “I have never seen a fish as beautiful as this.

“It was the realization not only of our dream to find this lost species, but of the hope that not all is lost — we still have a chance to protect the leopard barbel and all of the other incredible freshwater species it shares its home with.” After the researchers confirmed the fish were the correct species, they were released back into the wild.

The rediscovery brings hope
The rediscovery of the leopard barbel and the Batman River loach that was also located in Turkey in 2021, give scientists new hope that other species will be found, according to the press release.

“We all have a role to play in protecting our incredible natural heritage and I am proud to have used my skills to help rediscover the leopard barbel,” Ülkü said in the press release. “Safeguarding this species into the future is going to require educating other fishers and continuing to bring together scientific knowledge and local expertise.”

Kaya and Oral plan to conduct seminars for teachers and fishers to help build pride in their riverways and wildlife. The scientists will use the rediscovery as a case study to protect the Tigris River. Unfortunately there is a new dam under construction in Cizre near where the fish were found and this could impact their survival.  

“Freshwater ecosystems play a tremendous role in maintaining the overall health of our planet,” said Harmony Patricio, freshwater fish conservation program manager for Re:wild and SHOAL.  “Addressing threats and safeguarding the biodiversity that maintains these ecosystems is critical to solving the climate and biodiversity loss crises, and essential for human wellbeing.

“We hope the rediscovery of the leopard barbel will serve as an inspiring catalyst for future freshwater biodiversity conservation efforts in this region.”

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