CHATTANOOGA -- In a cool spring-fed Tennessee stream, flashes of color dance in the sunlight as dozens of Barrens topminnows dart just below the surface.
"If you live in the area, when you walk up to the creek these are the first fish that you see," said Matt Hamilton, senior aquarist at the Tennessee Aquarium. "The males have a brilliant iridescent blue that's beautiful and eye-catching."
Growing only to four inches in length, the Barrens topminnow is a tiny fish with a story almost as colorful as its scales.
First discovered in 1983 in a handful of locations in middle Tennessee, this rare fish almost disappeared forever less than 10 years later. The Barrens topminnow was surviving in just two locations.
"This fish by all means qualifies to be protected by the Endangered Species Act," Hamilton said.
But instead of federally listing the fish, officials decided to try working with area landowners to protect the habitat and begin an unprecedented restoration pilot project to save the Barrens topminnow.
Instead of restricting water and land use, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials entered into cooperative agreements with local landowners to identify suitable habitat for the fish and protect those areas.
In some cases that meant providing fencing to keep cattle out of sensitive areas, or paving streambeds for cattle crossings. In other cases it meant helping develop alternative water sources so local farmers could still water their livestock without degrading the habitat for the fish.
Hamilton reports an overwhelming response by local residents who now embrace this conservation effort taking place in their backyards. "During last summer's drought one landowner took a garden hose and pumped water from one spring without minnows to one with minnows that was drying up."
The Tennessee Aquarium began raising Barrens topminnows for the restoration project in 1998 along with partners from Conservation Fisheries, Inc., Tennessee Technological University, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Matt Hamilton works at the Aquarium throughout the year culturing Barrens topminnows for reintroduction into the headwaters of the Elk, Duck and Caney Fork Rivers in Tennessee.
"We're probably halfway to the goal of having 15 sites with viable populations. That means finding natural reproduction and dispersing of Barrens topminnows away from the release sites," Hamilton said.
Of the nearly 19,000 fish released through the program, 9,000 have been raised by the Tennessee Aquarium.
Another 400 Aquarium cultured fish are scheduled to be reintroduced to the waters of Franklin, Coffee and Cannon Counties this week.
Anyone wishing to have a close encounter with Barrens topminnows can view them on level two of the Tennessee Aquarium's River Journey building across from the first Nickajack Lake viewing windows.
Hamilton said he hopes everyone who sees these colorful creatures will be inspired by their story of being saved from extinction.
"They are beautiful fish," Hamilton said with a smile.