25 Nov 2022

Nearly 30 years after the golden skiffia disappeared from Mexico’s waters, our conservationists have helped to return the rare fish to the wild.

The team was made up of global experts from the UK, North and Latin America. They released 1,200 golden skiffia into the Teuchitlán River in central-western Mexico, where the fish had not been seen since the 1990s. The group of golden skiffia had been successfully bred by aquarists who created a conservation breeding programme that prevented the fish from becoming globally extinct.

Leonardo DiCaprio shares an Instagram post about the reintroduction of the golden skiffia to Mexico's waters
Leonardo DiCaprio, Hollywood actor and environmentalist, praised the work we’ve carried out with our conservation partners for ‘bringing rare fish species back from the dead’

The reintroduction of the fish coincided with the country’s Day of the Dead celebrations – where families honour their departed ancestors and welcome them back from the dead.

Omar Domínguez-Domínguez, a professor and researcher from the Michoacan University of Mexico, who is leading the golden skiffia reintroduction, said:

“Releasing this species back into the wild is a light of hope for this wonderful family of fish, and for the conservation of freshwater fish more generally. Knowing that universities, zoos and aquarists can come together to fix some of what has been destroyed and return to nature some of what has been lost is an amazing thing.”

Human disturbance caused by dam construction, water extraction, pollution and the introduction of invasive species have caused major changes to the skiffia’s habitat – pushing it to extinction in its only known home.

In 2014, scientists from the Michoacan University of Mexico and passionate fishkeepers from the Goodeid Working Group, helped restore the degraded habitat and remove non-native species from the Teuchitlán ecosystem.

We hope that the fish being released will ultimately result in a healthy, self-sustaining population that can fulfil its important natural role in the ecosystem of eating algae and mosquito larvae, which helps keep populations of those species in check.

Paul Bamford, our Regional Programme Manager for Latin America at the zoo, added:

“This project is a great example of how zoos can contribute to conservation in the field through conservation breeding and research, utilising the skills and experience that have been developed in zoos to help strengthen existing and new wild populations. By supporting freshwater conservation in Mexico and the ecosystems where the fish live, we’re not only protecting biodiversity and the wellbeing of freshwater environments, but also the people and communities that live alongside them.”

The golden skiffia release comes just a few years after the successful reintroduction of the tequila splitfin, which faced very similar threats to the golden skiffia and was also prevented from extinction as a result of a conservation action by our experts and partners. Following a successful reintroduction into the Teuchitlán River, the population of tequila splitfin is now thriving and the project has been cited as an International Union for the Conservation of Nature case study for successful global reintroductions.

This project is part of Fish Ark Mexico, a conservation project in central Mexico that focuses on 41 highly threatened species of freshwater fish. Fish Ark Mexico has more than 20 years of experience in Mexican fish conservation and has succeeded in keeping 39 species of endangered and extinct-in-the-wild goodeid species in zoos and aquariums.

Harmony Patricio, SHOAL Conservation Programme Manager, and Re:wild’s Freshwater Fish Conservation Programme Manager, said:

“The SHOAL partnership is expanding freshwater species conservation awareness, funding, capacity and action to meet the level of the challenge, and positive stories such as the golden skiffia reintroduction can help draw attention to the challenges facing freshwater ecosystems, which have historically been overlooked and underfunded.”

In preparation for the species return to the wild, the fish were first placed in ponds, so they could begin to adapt to different conditions. They were then taken to floating pods in the river known as mesocosms where they live for at least a month. This allows them to further adapt to natural conditions before release.

Individuals released into the wild were tagged and will be monitored for the next five years to assess whether the population is increasing and whether the fish are reproducing and growing successfully in the river.

Conservation reintroductions are vital to ensuring extinctions are halted and populations are given the best possible chances of bouncing back from the brink.

Bringing the species back from the ‘dead’ is the result of collaborative efforts between experts from our zoo, Michoacan University of Mexico, Goodeid Working Group, Re:wild and SHOAL who continue to develop their plan to save Mexican goodeid species, which includes both the golden skiffia and tequila splitfin.