Fishing for solutions

When Evan Carson first started researching freshwater fish in the desert springs of northern Mexico, he realized many species were in danger of extinction. Local communities use a tremendous amount of water from the springs at Cuatro Ciénegas — threatening the native wildlife.

But with research skills he learned at Arizona State University, Carson has helped those same communities understand why the local plant and animal species in their valley are worth protecting. Carson, currently a research assistant professor with the University of New Mexico, regularly shares his research findings with local conservation groups and land-managers that have the power to create positive change.

Carson said he didn’t always intend to take such an active role in preserving threatened species. As a young child, he had a fascination with wildlife, but it wasn’t until he got older that he realized he wanted to protect it. When he had an opportunity to join ASU’s biology PhD program and study with then professor Thomas Dowling, he jumped at the chance.

“A lot of people around the Southwest were doing really good work, but I thought Tom’s team was the best,” said Carson, an ASU class of ’05 graduate. “I felt I could go to people with the School of Life Sciences, who all had very different expertise, and learn a lot from them.”

Carson first conducted research in northern Mexico through a school project. As a graduate student, he traveled with the late professor W. L. Minckley to the Chihuahuan Desert to study unique organisms at Cuatro Ciénegas. There he saw the incredible diversity of the desert fishes, but quickly realized how they were being threatened by local farming practices.

“The more I came to understand how many of these species could actually be wiped out, the more concerned I got,” Carson said. “And many of them are not only endangered, but unnecessarily so.”

Much of Carson’s current research is conducted with that belief in mind.

By working alongside non-governmental organizations in Mexico such as ProNatura Noreste, he can partner with local communities to help bring stability to endangered ecosystems. Sometimes that involves educating those who are damaging the habitats by drawing too much water out of the desert springs. Other times, it may mean expanding existing habitats or even creating artificial ones.

One of the most interesting things about habitat restoration, he said, is how the local citizens take pride in the species unique to their land. According to Carson, people are eager to learn more about sustainable agricultural practices so that the local wildlife can start to thrive again.

So, while Carson says his role as a scientist precludes him from being a true activist, he said he is satisfied knowing that his research helps these communities understand the importance of protecting the native species found nowhere else on Earth. 

Life sciences alumnus Evan Carson studies endangered freshwater fish and teaches communities in northern Mexico about the threats facing those species.