Taking a good book to bed is one of life’s great pleasures. Even better is sharing that book with whomever is sharing that bed. Mindful of this, I settle between the sheets, crack open my copy of “An Atlas of Illinois Fishes: 150 Years of Change,” leaf through the pages, and find a passage suitable for reading aloud. “Did you know,” I tell my wife beside me, “that during the mating season, the male River Chub fish grows ‘large tubercles on its snout and a large hump on the top of its head’?” “Is that supposed to be some sort of aphrodisiac?” she asks. “For you or the other River Chub?” I grin, but she just rolls over and pretends to go to sleep. I hang up my fishing pole.
The truth is, unless you are courting an ichthyologist, “An Atlas of Illinois Fishes” is best read out of bed. This gobsmacking reference book will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about Illinois fishes, including their morphology (i.e., how they are put together), their habitat, and their distribution across the state. Two of the book’s five authors work for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, two others serve as “curator of fishes” at respected institutions, and one is an emeritus professor of zoology at SIU. They are committed, and I mean committed, to exhaustively cataloging all the species that swim Illinois’ varied waterways, a monumental task first taken up by naturalists in the late 1800s. The authors note that “An Atlas of Illinois Fishes” is intended for “scientists and naturalists.” To these groups I might add anglers and anyone who is interested in the wonders of, and the threats to, the planet’s mind-boggling biodiversity. Thrill-seeking pescatarians might enjoy reading it as a menu. (I’m kidding, of course.)
The book is divided according to fish family: Lampreys (yuck!), Sturgeons, Mooneyes, Suckers, Sticklebacks, et cetera. There are thirty-three families in all, with the Family Leuciscidae (known to you and me as the minnow family) containing the largest number of species. In total, the book covers 217 species, and although I didn’t immerse myself in the minutiae of each one, I did enjoy perusing their common names. Meet, for example, the “Fathead Minnow” (as though its lowly status on the food chain weren’t insult enough), the “Bloater,” the “Johnny Darter,” the “Freckled Madtom” (sounds like a nickname for a fraternity brother), the “Hornyhead Chub” (also sounds like a nickname for a fraternity brother), the “Northern Hog Sucker,” and the “Striped Mullet” (I had one in high school in the 1980s). Devoted to each species is a page that offers a color photo of the fish and identifying details. Also included is a map of Illinois rivers and major lakes overlaid with color-coded circles and squares denoting where the fish has been documented through complex methods. Some species are strikingly rare (the Taillight Shiner, for example) and others gratuitously abundant. You’ll have no trouble catching a Green Sunfish, if that’s the fish you’re after.
I found most interesting the introductory overviews that precede the book’s morphological nitty-gritty. These overviews provide historical perspective on how “ichthyofaunal surveys” have been carried out and how often they have been done. Throughout these sections the authors stress the connection between fishes and the geological and hydrographic features of the landscape, and they trace how accelerating agricultural, residential and industrial exploitation of land has impacted ichthyological life over the last 150 to 200 years. Fishes need water, and given how extensively Illinois waterways, wetlands and lakes have been used, abused, dammed and dried-up, it’s a wonder any survive at all. Currently, the greatest threats to Illinois’ native fishes are invasive species and climate change. Most of the fishes in this book could become extinct tomorrow and few people would be the wiser. I’m grateful that “An Atlas of Illinois Fishes” exists, if for no other reason than it reassures me that smart people are paying attention to life’s biological details and taking notice when even so unsympathetic a creature as the parasitic Silver Lamprey goes missing. Here’s hoping that male River Chub with the large tubercles finds the right hookup.
“An Atlas of Illinois Fishes: 150 Years of Change”
By Brian A. Metzke, Brooks M. Burr, Leon C. Hinz Jr., Lawrence M. Page and Christopher A. Taylor
University of Illinois Press, 424 pages