Native Catfish, Salamander Species Considered For Endangered Species List

Aug 21, 2019

A Carolina madtom caught in the Tar River basin earlier this year.
Credit Andrew Glen

Eastern North Carolina is the only place in the world where you’ll find a catfish species called the Carolina Madtom and a salamander known as the Neuse River waterdog. With threats like habitat loss and pollution, their populations and range are rapidly declining. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add both the madtom and waterdog to the Endangered Species list. Jared Brumbaugh has more on conservation efforts already underway in Eastern North Carolina.

The Carolina madtom is a 5-inch long venomous catfish with large eyes, long whiskers and a short, chunky body as an endangered species. The species was once found throughout the Neuse and Tar River basins, but now it is only mostly found in the Upper Tar River.   The madtom is considered extinct in the Trent River and populations in the Neuse River are rapidly dwindling.

Carolina madtom have spines along their dorsal and pectoral fins that can deliver a sting comparable to a wasp.
Credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, D Biggins, former USFWS, 1992

In May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the Carolina madtom as an endangered species and designating 257 river miles in North Carolina as critical habitat. The decision was made after a species status assessment was completed in November 2018 by experts from state and federal government agencies.

“They looked at the conditions, they looked at the science, they examined where had it historically been found, where are we finding it now. The finding was that they are diminishing," said Lilibeth Serrano, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Eastern North Carolina. “The amount of populations and their ability to withstand future threats has diminished to the point to the Carolina madtom, when we say we’re proposing it for endangered status, means that right now we consider it to be in the risk of where it could be extinct any time.”

The Service also proposed listing the Neuse River waterdog, which is an aquatic salamander endemic to the Tar and Neuse River basins, as a threatened species. 740 river miles would be set aside for as critical habitat for the species under the proposal. The Neuse River waterdog grows to 11 inches long and has a reddish-brown body with a tadpole-like tail. 

A Neuse River waterdog found during a recent survey in the Little River, which is part of the Neuse basin.
Credit Jared Brumbaugh

A comment period on the proposal ended last month. Serrano says they received comments from about 80 individuals, mostly in support of protecting the species. The Service has until July 22, 2020 to make a decision.

“And a decision could go one of three ways," said Serrano. "We could just simply look at the comments we receive and determine yes, this is a go, and list it as is. Or we can say no, the proposal was flawed and we do not list the species. Or the third option is to modify the proposal and send it out again for public review. If we feel like we need to make changes and they are substantial enough so that they change the content of the proposal, then we are obligated to open a second proposal.”

Meanwhile, conservation work continues in Eastern North Carolina. The Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission work with organizations to preserve both species and restore habitat by targeting key parcels for acquisition. Biologists continue to monitor populations of Carolina madtom and Neuse River waterdog. 

A sampling of Carolina madtom populations took place July 17 at Contentnea Creek near Wilson and July 18 at Little River in Johnston County. Andrew Glen, the Eastern Region Aquatic Wildlife Diversity Biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission led the effort.

Biologists with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and volunteers participated in Carolina madtom sampling in the Little River in Johnston County.
Credit Jared Brumbaugh

“You can still find some [Carolina madtom] in the Tar. We’ve pulled up one in the Tar basin this year, but unfortunately, none in the Neuse so we’re trying hard to find them before they’re all gone,” said Glen. 


Both the Carolina madtom and the Neuse River waterdog face several threats including habitat fragmentation, increasing water temperatures, reduced streamflow, agriculture and urban development, and pollution. 

Glen and his team of biologists and volunteers have completed ten surveys this year.  The catfish that are caught are transported to a breeding facility in Tennessee. The goal is to create a captive population that can eventually be released back into the Neuse and Tar basins to bolster wild populations of Carolina madtom.

“It has been proven it would succeed,” said Serrano. “There are some species that we don’t even have tested methods for propagating outside of the natural environment.  With this one, we know that it works. They know how to do it.”

Sampling for the Carolina madtom takes place during the summer, while the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission conducts surveys for the Neuse River waterdog in the winter.