WEST VALLEY CITY — It may sound like a problem so big that an individual could never do anything about it; many scientists believe the world is in the midst of an extinction crisis.
As it turns out, though, a network of volunteers is helping — at least a little — by raising an endangered species in their own home.
Chuck Roberts, for one. His effort to stave off extinction revolves around a tiny fish most people have never heard of.
"At first glance they're kind of a duller fish," Roberts said. "But then, as the light catches them, they are quite pleasing to look at."
The fish, each just a couple of inches long, are called ameca splendens, a species that is obscure and vanishingly rare. They're popularly know as "butterfly splitfins" because of their patches of bright color.
"They kind of look like butterflies when they shine in the light," Roberts said admiringly as he peers into his home aquarium. He's raising six of the rare fish in the basement of his West Valley home.
"(I) wanted to keep some fish that kind of had a purpose," he explained, "beyond just something that looks nice in your house."
In their home waters deep in the heart of Mexico, butterfly splitfins are up against big problems. Some experts consider them "extinct in the wild."
Their natural habitat is in shallow, high-elevation rivers west of Guadalajara. But today, only two small populations still exist, according to John Lyons, curator of fishes at the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum. He said the existing wild populations in Mexico are actually hanging on in two commercially operated water parks — about 1,000 fish in one and about 100 in the other.
"It's out there," Lyons said of the beleaguered species. "It's certainly critically endangered and something could happen tomorrow that could eliminate them."
Lyons believes the biggest factor in the species' decline is the introduction of nonnative predatory fish that prey on the smaller splitfins.
Other possible causes, according to Roberts, include construction of dams, water shortages and chemical pollution from nearby farming operations. Whatever the cause, something has pushed ameca splendens to the brink.
"And I think it's important to keep as many species alive," Roberts said, "so that we don't have a catastrophic failure of our ecosystems."
Roberts is part of a loosely organized network — Lyons estimates it's fewer than 500 aquarium hobbyists around the world — who care enough to provide a home for ameca splendens and about 40 other species in the Goodeid family of live-bearing fish.
"It's one of the few things that keeps a lot of fish around," Roberts said. "If not for the aquarium hobby, there would be countless species that would be wiped out."
Lyons said it's like keeping "fish in the bank." He believes hobbyists in recent years have used the concept to save about 100 fish species from extinction.
The tiny splitfins seem to be doing very well in Roberts' home aquarium. He feeds them several times a day; their favorite snackables seem to be boiled zucchini and brine shrimp from the Great Salt Lake.
"I just go out there with a net and scoop them up," Roberts said.
Meanwhile, he's been noticing some hints that his three male butterfly splitfins are ready to become fathers.
"They'll get up next to the female and kind of shake," Roberts said, describing the apparent mating ritual. "It's kind of a shaking and shimmying. It almost looks like the fish was vibrating."
His hope is that his ameca splendens will produce babies he can donate to other aquariums and someday, perhaps, help reintroduce the species into the wild. Lyons is hopeful that such an effort will eventually be made. A species similar to ameca splendens is currently being reintroduced in the same part of Mexico and the project seems to have strong support from people living in nearby communities.Comment on this story
"They are actively suppressing nonnative fish, removing them," Roberts said. "I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic."
Roberts is glad he joined the effort to give butterfly splitfins a second shot at survival.
"Humans have kind of messed things up around the world," Roberts said, "and I just feel like I'm doing my part to undo that, or do something good in the world."