You can never have enough posts about Freshwater Shrimp

March 26, 2009 § 5 Comments

Freshwater Shrimp collected from the Los Angeles River in 1922

Freshwater Shrimp collected from the Los Angeles River in 1922

Well… Jessica already broke this story months ago, but I figure we creek freaks can never have enough posts about freshwater shrimp, right? I can add a small amount of additional information about Syncaris pasadena – the species of freshwater shrimp that lived in the Los Angeles River less than a hundred years ago.

Today I gave a talk at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. It was more-or-less my typical talk with slide show that I have given in various forms for the last half-dozen years: the past, present and future of the Los Angeles River. I felt a little intimidated, as there were people in the audience who are historians and scientists who know more about the river than I do. I am a generalist. There are a lot of stories that I hear and repeat, and I don’t think too much about it when I repeat them to the general public. In my audience today were ornithologist Kimball Garrett, who is the main author of the 1993 study of the biota of the Los Angeles River (that report was one of main sources for my past L.A. River fish blog entry) and historian Bill Estrada, who has written the history of Los Angeles’ plaza… as well as other scientists, social scientists, and other experts. I had to watch what I said… and check in with these folks when I wasn’t sure.

90 Years, 90 Treasures

90 Years, 90 Treasures

The talk went fine. Lots of excellent questions, and I didn’t have to spend much time explaining words like “watershed.”

Afterwards, Bill Estrada and curator Sojin Kim took me out to lunch and rewarded me with some nice schwag. This included Bill’s book, greeting cards with images from the museum’s Forbes photography collection, and a small paperback book entitled 90 Years, 90 Treasures: Celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (2003). Sojin mentioned that this book included the L.A. River shrimp. Sure enough, page 30 (shown at the top of this entry) features professional quality photographs of shrimp in their specimen jar, with the following text:

A Casualty of Urban Development
Although not as attractive as the city for which it is named, Syncaris pasadena, the Los Angeles River shrimp, is remarkable for keeping secrets. Once alive and well and found only in the Los Angeles River drainage, today it is extinct. The entire world knowledge of the species consists of 12 little individuals (average length 1 1/2 inches) gathered some 80 years ago and placed in a small glass jar. The specimens were then labeled, but the information was as vague as “Collected from the L.A. River, 1922, Pasadena.” We have no knowledge of what Syncaris pasadena ate, what color it was, how it behaved, or what role it played in the local ecosystem. It is a stark reminder of how much we have to lose through urban development if we do not take into account the indigenous inhabitants of the territory we claim as our own. Fortunately the Museum’s collections of Crustacea, the fifth largest in the world and the second largest in North America, represents the entire planet, including specimens from the Indian, Pacific and Antarctic Oceans.

It’s fun to see these photos and read the story of this precious creature. The account does leave me with a question. The L.A. River doesn’t flow through Pasadena, so it appears that these critters probably came from the Arroyo Seco or even Eaton Canyon Wash. Maybe it’s mislabeled, or maybe there is a practice of labeling specimens with the name of the watershed, instead of the individual tributary?

From the photo in the book, I can make out the inscription on the specimen card inside the bottle. The portion visible in the photo states, in precise hand-lettering, “L.A. River, Calif. / Coll. H. R. Hill / Alc. 75%”

I wonder about this H. R. Hill. In the sepia tone of my mind’s eye, he (though it’s not entirely clear that he is a he; I could be underestimating Heather Rosemarie Hill) is a mustachioed gentleman, wading knee-deep in the wild sycamore-lined Arroyo Seco streambed, a hundred years ago, collecting shrimp… for us.

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§ 5 Responses to You can never have enough posts about Freshwater Shrimp

  • I’m sorry to say that I was out of town for your seminar at the Museum on Friday. But reading your post made me think you might be interested in seeing the original species description of the Pasadena shrimp:

    (Note that the shrimp’s genus was changed from “Caradina” to “Syncaris” subsequent to that initial publication.)

    The only description of the habitat in the original paper is: “…common in the streams about Pasadena, California.”

  • stufftodoinla says:

    This is great! I wish I’d known about this talk! I live in Pasadena, and I’m so excited to know there’s a shrimp named after my town!!

  • shrimp says:

    H.R. Hill – Probably Howard R. Hill, curator at LA County Museum for over 30 years.

  • George Hammond says:

    It’s standard practice for natural history museums to keep the field notebooks of their staff and others who contribute large numbers of specimens. In these notebooks the collectors record what they collected when and where, often with additional notes on habitats or other species encountered. It’s possible that the museum has H.R. Hill’s notes, and these could shed some light on the specific locations.

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