Alec Lackmann doesn't quite have his Ph.D. yet, but he's already made his mark on science.

Lackmann, a graduate student at North Dakota State University, set out to study the buffalo fish — and what he found amazed him.

Sampling in the waters of west-central Minnesota and collecting catches from anglers, Lackmann found five bigmouth buffalo fish more than 100 years old — including a 112-year-old female taken from Crystal Lake near Pelican Rapids in Otter Tail County.

Bomb radiocarbon dating verified the fish's age, making it the oldest age-validated freshwater fish ever taken. Lackmann and his research team recently published their findings in the scientific journal Communications Biology.

"It was quite stunning and shocking to comprehend that there was a fish that old," Lackmann said Wednesday. "Initially, I was very skeptical at what I was looking at. I thought there was no way these fish were that old.

"But as the evidence continued to build, you slowly convince yourself. It's not like all of a sudden a 'Eureka!' moment, but the collection of data over time convinced me."

The bigmouth buffalo fish is common in Minnesota waters. The city of Buffalo, Minn., is named after a nearby lake where the fish were plentiful, and Kandiyohi County gets its name from the Dakota word meaning "where the buffalo fish come."

Resembling a carp, the bigmouth buffalo fish is often dismissed as a "trash fish" or a "rough fish." But Lackmann thought it was worthy of scientific inquiry.

"Many people think buffalo fish are carp," said Lackmann, 28, who grew up in Moorhead and Detroit Lakes. "They aren't.

"Calling a bigmouth buffalo fish a carp is like calling a human a lemur."

Buffalo fish play an important role in Minnesota's aquatic ecosystem, Lackmann said, and they actually compete with invasive carp. A healthy population of buffalo fish could play a role in fending off the carp and other invaders.

Juvenile buffalo fish resemble shiner minnows, and they may provide important forage for predatory fish, he added.

Lackmann's study of nearly 400 buffalo fish yielded an abundance of fish older than 80 to 90 years. Evidence suggests that a spate of dam building during the 1930s may have interfered with spawning, blocking upstream access to spawning grounds, Lackmann said. Thus, the buffalo fish population may have failed to reproduce regularly.

The 112-year-old record fish, taken in July 2018, wasn't very large, he said, weighing 22 pounds and measuring 34 inches long. By comparison, an 88-year-old female in his study was 42 pounds and about 41 inches.

Lackmann hopes his work will help to change the perception of buffalo fish as "trash" and add to knowledge about how certain animals can live so long.

"There's a lot we don't know about many of the organisms that are right around us," he said. "There's a lot we could learn from really old specimens: What is going on at the cellular level that allows them to live so long, and can this be applied to humans?"

For now, he's looking forward to getting his doctorate in aquatic ecology and defending the underappreciated animals in our midst.

"The biggest thing is, we need to address this ecological neglect problem of treating certain species as garbage," he said. "We could overexploit these resources before we even understand what we have."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402