Dr. David Etnier was East Tennessee legend

Sandra ClarkObits, West Knoxville

The man who discovered the snail darter has died.

David Etnier Ph.D., passed away on May 17, 2023, in Knoxville, Tennessee, at age 84. After graduating with his doctorate from the University of Minnesota, he began his teaching career at the University of Tennessee in 1965. He taught aquatic insects, ichthyology, ecology, and regional faunas for 35 years in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (formerly called Zoology).

In 1993, he co-authored The Fishes of Tennessee, the authoritative source on identification, biology and distribution of freshwater fish species in Tennessee. He established the Etnier Ichthyological Collection at UT, which is now one of the largest fish collections in the Southeast. He served on the board of directors for The Tennessee Nature Conservancy, Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association and Conservation Fisheries Inc., a nonprofit business owned and operated by some of his former students.

A small snail darter

But his name will be linked forever with the snail darter, a freshwater perch no bigger than an adult’s hand, that no one had heard of until the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to dam the Little Tennessee River at Lenoir City. Here’s a link to a story written by the Boston College law professor who took the case to the Supreme Court. It reads like a novel, and Dr. Etnier is there throughout, advocating for what opponents called “a three-inch minnow.”

There was so much more to David and Liz Etnier’s life together. They raised three children whose names start with “Dr.” He played sports, kept a “bird list” from age 5, enjoyed fishing and had a cabin on Lake Saganaga, Ontario. His accomplishments are many and are outlined in the full obituary here. A celebration of life will be held at a later date.

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