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Monitoring muskies: Garage is fish operating room for a day

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Updated: June 7, 2013 6:12AM



Her operating room was a cold garage in Orland Township, with a few boat motors hanging on the wall, and Dr. Jennifer Langan’s patients tended to thrash around before the anesthesia finally took hold.

Working with the Cook County Forest Preserve District, the veterinarian from Brookfield Zoo was inserting radio transmitters into muskies on Friday. Biologists with the district hope the information gathered from tracking their movements will help them better understand the fish, which the district introduced into Busse Lake in Elk Grove Village in 2007.

“We are not sure where they’re going, how they use the lake,” Jim Phillips, a fisheries biologist with the district, said.

He works from the district’s McGinnis Field Station, just east of Wolf Road, and the garage Langan and her team worked from is normally used to store vehicles.

The vet said they’re more accustomed to operating in Brookfield’s “phenomenal” surgical center, but that they’ve also performed surgery under harsher conditions.

“This is pretty luxurious,” she said. “We have a roof over our heads.”

A table stocked with supplies including gloves, syringes and gauze sponges was nearby, and Langan donned a surgical mask and gown before making a small incision in the belly of her first patient. In all, five muskies and one northern pike were outfitted with tracking devices.

The transmitter itself is about the size of a person’s thumb, with a long, wire-like antenna that protrudes from the fish’s body. Each transmitter has a different frequency, and batteries powering them can last about 18 months.

During the procedure, oxygenated water poured from a tube over the fish’s gills so it wouldn’t suffocate, and an electronic stethoscope was used to monitor its heart rate.

At one point, Langan told other members of the team that not enough water was flowing over the gills, and to prop the fish’s head up with a piece of foam.

After surgery, pain medication and antibiotics would be administered, “just like we would do in a hospital” for human patients, Langan said.

The fish also will undergo a recovery period and be evaluated before being released back into Busse Lake.

Muskie are called the “fish of a thousand casts” because of their elusiveness, and the tracking devices will help biologists learn more about their behavior, Chris Anchor, chief wildlife biologist with the forest preserve district, said.

“There is a small subset of these fish that learn very quickly how to stay away from people” and avoid being caught, he said, and the transmitters will provide more clues about “what tactics they use.” Langan said the monitoring will also give biologists a better understanding of the fishes’ reproductive behavior.

The district and zoo have previously collaborated to insert transmitters into walleye and bass, but it was the first time that the procedure had been done on muskies.

A tag affixed to each fish after surgery says “Do Not Consume,” so should the muskie later be caught, the lucky fisherman won’t eat it. The warning is partly due to remaining traces of the chemicals used to anesthetize the fish, Phillips said.

“We don’t want to track the fish to somebody’s freezer,” he said.



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