Icthyology's Golden Age

Two biologists peered down into the seine that was now writhing with fish pulled from the waters of the Big Niangua River. It was the summer of 1884 and they were standing in the headwaters of the river near Marshfield.

The pair netted many smallish fish familiar to their trained eyes, but one, no longer than an index finger, held their attention with its unusual markings and bright flashes of color. Its distinguishing marks included a series of prominent dark brown cross bars running along its body. A narrow orange streak so perfectly tinged the edge of its dorsal fin that it might have been painted by an artist.

The scientists, Seth Meek and Charles Gilbert, had discovered a new species of fish. They named it Etheostoma nianguae. Today we know it as the Niangua darter, a now federally threatened fish found nowhere else but in streams in the Osage River basin. The pair's scientific expedition across the Ozarks that summer and other work vastly expanded our knowledge of the richly varied aquatic life in Missouri's streams.

Collaborating with them was David Starr Jordan, a colleague known as the father of American ichthyology. The three discovered and named as new species Missouri's sicklefin chub, Ozark shiner, Niangua darter, bluestripe darter and yoke darter. Between them they also had a hand in discovering another 20 or so new species that initially were found in other states but also lived in Missouri.

In addition, Meek collected dozens of types of fish around the state. Many were species already known to science, but his yeoman's work served to confirm their existence and, in part, their range in the state. This endeavor also helped establish another important fact: Missouri harbors one of the richest native fish faunas of any state. While Gilbert and Jordan were far bigger names in scientific circles, Meek's work here stands out. He was "the single biggest contributor to knowledge of Missouri fishes before 1900," according to William L. Pflieger, retired Conservation Department ichthyologist and author of The Fishes of Missouri. Echoing that sentiment is Henry W. Robison, professor of biology at Southern Arkansas University and co-author of Fishes of Arkansas.

Seth Meek seemed destined to spend his life peering into the waters of one river or another. He was born in 1859 in Hicksville, a small town in far northwest Ohio. His birthplace falls squarely between the St. Joseph River and the northeasterly course of