Archive for the ‘Ichthyology’ Category

Floodplain Fish

July 31, 2017

River systems host a hidden world of tiny invertebrates.  Some are microscopic, while others, though visible to the naked eye, remain unseen unless a curious fisherman cuts open the stomach of his catch.  A fish’s stomach might contain small crustaceans including water fleas (Cladocera), seed shrimp (Ostracada), amphipods, copepods and/or isopods.  These minute shrimp-like creatures form the basis of a food chain that supports fish populations.

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Seed shrimp (Ostracods) along with other small crustaceans are an important part of the food chain in aquatic habitats.

In southeastern North America rivers overflow their banks between November and March because cooler temperatures reduce evapotranspiration and dormant riverside vegetation takes in less water.  The flood stage is especially wide in the flat coastal plain region where a sheet of water 2-3 feet deep can cover hundreds of square miles alongside major rivers, though modern dams, ditches, and canals have reduced the former extent of these flooded wetlands.  This flooded land offers more territory for fish to forage and reproduce.  The diet of many fish species changes from the aquatic crustaceans mentioned above to prey that normally lives some distance from the river.  1 study found fish occupying floodplains ate a species of isopod that lives in small pools of water, terrestrial species of crayfish, beetle larva, and caterpillars.  These terrestrial species were not normally found in fish’s stomachs until the flood stage.  Some species of fish even breed over floodplains that become dry land during summer.  The blueback herring (Alosa aetivalis) spawns in flooded hardwood swamps, unlike its relatives the American shad and hickory shad that spawn in the main channel and tributaries of a river.  Blueback herring eggs adhere to twigs on the forest floor.

 

Blueback herring spawn over flooded land.

White bass (Morone chrysops) also spawn on floodplains during high water.  This species is probably the “white fish” mentioned by John Lawson in his book A New Voyage to the Carolinas.  A few years ago, I wrote a blog article identifying the fish Lawson wrote about in his early natural history book.  (See: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/identifying-the-species-of-fish-described-by-john-lawson-in-1710-part-2/   )I was able to figure the identity of most of them despite the archaic names and vague descriptions, but his “white fish” stumped me.  Zach Matthews, editor of The Itinerant Angler, suggested to me that Lawson was referring to the white bass.  Lawson’s description that it was found in “freshets” or floodwaters is good evidence he was discussing the white bass.

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White bass also spawn over floodplains.  This is probably the “white fish” John Lawson discussed in his book A New Voyage to the Carolinas.

There have been plenty of genetic studies of the white bass and its cousin the striped bass because the 2 closely related species are hybridized for sports fishermen.  But I can’t find any genetic studies that explore the evolutionary origin of this genus.  It seems likely white bass diverged from the same ancestor as the striped bass, and this common ancestor was probably an anadromous fish, like the latter species. The initial ancestral population of white bass began spawning on floodplains and became landlocked and unable to return to the ocean when something temporarily blocked access to the ocean.   This explains how the 2 species diverged from each other.  White bass evolved the ability to survive entirely in freshwater habitats and were able to colonize aquatic environments much further inland than striped bass.  White bass collect fat reserves and can endure cold winters.  They became well adapted to the colder temperatures of Pleistocene Ice Ages.  Geneticists could probably use a molecular clock to determine when this divergence occurred, and they may be able to tie the timing to some climatic event.

Fish use floodplains to migrate to new habitats and maintain genetic vigor between populations.  During flood stages many fish from the Okefenokee Swamp swim through flooded habitat to the Suwannee River.  Warmouth, flier, bowfin, pickerel, bullheads, and lake chubsuckers have all been recorded traveling through 2-3 feet of water to the river.  Floods can also connect breeding fish from oxbow lakes with fish from the main branch of the river.  Shiners, bream, catfish, darters, mosquito fish, and starhead minnows often travel through flood waters between oxbow lakes and rivers.  Eels also use these corridors but they don’t breed in freshwater.  Many fish get trapped in oxbow lakes and sloughs after floodwaters recede.  However, oxbow lakes provide better habitat for fish than rivers, often holding 12 X more fish per acre though species diversity is identical.  The most common fish in Altamaha River oxbow lakes are gizzard shad, spotted sucker fish, and channel catfish.

During Ice Ages rivers in the southeast didn’t flood as much as they do today.  The fish best adapted for braided river patterns were most common.  Cut-off channels within river beds probably held concentrated populations of catfish and killifish.  Anadromous fish such as shad and striped bass spawned in areas that have since been inundated by rising sea levels.  Following the end of the Ice Age, there was a supermeandering phase of rivers when flooding was more extreme than it is today.  This caused a resurgence of floodplain fish species.

Reference:

Clark, J.R.; and J. B. Forado

Wetlands of Bottomland Forests

Proceedings of Bottomland Hardwood Forest Wetlands in Southeastern United States 1980

Native Fish Species Composition of Piedmont Tributary Creeks of the Chattahoochee River

November 7, 2016

The many present day creeks and small rivers that flow through the piedmont region of central Georgia originated between 15,000 years BP-8,000 years BP when water tables rose as a result of melting glaciers far to the north of the state.  Before this, during the Glacial Maximum, the regional landscape was much more arid and only the largest of rivers and creeks still flowed…and those were often low flowing and clogged with sandbars.  Intermittent springs probably occurred in the lowest areas of topography along the present day courses of smaller streams.  Climatic phases with increased precipitation raised the water table enough to cause water flow between springs, and these creeks eventually emptied into the nearest river.  So much atmospheric moisture was released at the end of the last Ice Age that rivers and creeks had a larger flow than they do today.  This occurred between ~10,000 years BP-~5,000 years BP when rivers were classified as “supermeandering.”  Fish found their way from rivers into newly formed creeks during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene, though a few species may had persisted in relic Ice Age springs before water tables rose.  About 40 years ago the noted naturalist, Charles Wharton, electro-fished a small unnamed creek located 1.4 miles south of Sopa Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River, and he determined the “near original” composition of fish species typical of piedmont streams that flow into this river.  These creeks flow through steep terrain often between high bluffs and where protected are still very beautiful natural areas.

Map of Georgia highlighting Cobb County

Cobb County, Georgia.  Charles Wharton electro-fished a small stream here over 40 years ago and determined the original fish species composition of piedmont Chattahoochee feeder creeks.

This is where Sopa Creek flows into the Chattahoochee River.  Sherman ordered his troops to cross over the rocks here during the Civil War.

The fish species Wharton found in his survey included band fin shiner ( Notropis zonistius ), central stoneroller ( Campostoma anomalum ), creek chubsucker ( Erimyzon oblongus ), Alabama hog sucker ( Hypentelium etowanum ), yellow bullhead catfish ( Ictalurus natalis ), bluegill ( Lepomis machrochorus ), and banded sculpin ( Collus carolinae ).  The band fin shiner is a small minnow native to the Chattahoochee River drainage, though it has been introduced to other river systems wherever fishermen dump their bait buckets.  The stoneroller is a widespread species in the Midwest.  It eats algae and may school in the hundreds.  They grow up to 8 inches long.  The creek chubsucker can grow twice as long as the stoneroller, and it eats small crustaceans and insect larva in addition to algae.

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Alabama hog sucker.

The yellow bullhead catfish is omnivorous and can grow up to 6 pounds, though it normally reaches a weight of about 2 pounds.  Bluegills also grow large enough to make a good meal.  Early settlers placed fish traps in the nearest streams and caught supper, while they were busy clearing and cultivating their land.  Bluegills and catfish living in clear moving streams with rocky  bottoms probably taste better than those taken from muddy ponds.

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Yellow bullhead catfish.

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Bluegill sunfish or bream.

The banded sculpin is a freshwater relative of a large family of saltwater species.  Banded sculpins are nocturnal ambush predators that live under stones.  They compete with crayfish for the same type of habitat.

Banded Sculpin - Cottus

Banded sculpin.

The origin of the name Sopa Creek has a disputed origin.  This stream flows for 11.6 miles through Marietta until it empties into the Chattahoochee River.  Today, the headwaters emerge from a spring under a manmade culvert, but I’m sure the original landscape was picturesque.  Now, it is surrounded by suburban sprawl.  Some say this creek gets its name from the foam caused by water rushing through rocks.  The foam resembles soap spuds, and supposedly an early mapmaker misspelled soap.  Others claim the creek is named after an old Cherokee Indian (Old Sopa) who lived nearby.  He reportedly refused to be removed when is compatriots were force marched to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.

Reference:

Wharton, Charles

The Natural Environments of Georgia

Georgia Department of Natural Resources 1978

 

Pleistocene Bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix)

October 4, 2016

The bluefish, a powerful fast-swimming predator, is popular with many saltwater anglers because it fights hard when hooked.  They inhabit tropical and semi-tropical waters year round, but a segment of the American population migrates as far north as Nova Scotia when water temperatures exceed 64 degrees F during summer.  They prey on small fish, such as silversides, menhaden, sand eels, and their own young; as well as squid and sea worms.  The blues prefer shallow coastal waters and especially like to congregate the down current side of shoals between narrow gaps of land. Here, they wait in underwater holes for  small fish swept over submerged sandbars by strong currents. Populations of bluefish have historically and mysteriously fluctuated, and like most other marine species of fish are in danger of being overfished.

There is little fossil evidence of bluefish dating to the Pleistocene.  In the ocean fish remains usually won’t survive the ravages of time.  But a few middens do hold evidence of bluefish.  The Old Oak midden in Florida–a mound consisting of shellfish and vertebrate bones made by generations of the Weeden Island Culture–contained bluefish bones.  This culture existed from 1200-200 years ago. However, bluefish didn’t suddenly pop into existence then.  Without paleontological evidence it’s still possible to learn something interesting about a species’ past by studying their DNA. One genetic study determined western Atlantic bluefish populations off the coast of America have been reproductively isolated from eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean populations for 480,000 years.  And there are 2 populations of bluefish living in the Mediterranean Sea that have been reproductively isolated from each other for over 100,000 years.  The isolation of these 2 Mediterranean populations is associated with barriers that formed during Ice Ages.  These underwater geographic barriers still remain.

The divergence of the western and eastern bluefish populations occurred during Marine Isotope Stage 13a–a warm peak with a cold split.  Deep waters of the mid-Atlantic are the present day barrier that keeps these 2 populations reproductively isolated from each other.  Blues prefer shallow water and are unlikely to traverse deeper waters where baitfish may be scarce over large areas.  The last time a population of bluefish traversed the mid-Atlantic could have been a summer migration that may have gone off course chasing a massive school of menhaden.  It seems likely this occurred during a stadial when the distance between the continents was smaller.  Perhaps a normal summer migration swam into unseasonably cool water that occurred because the Gulf Stream suddenly shut down, and they headed east because they became disoriented.  Bluefish probably originated long before the Pleistocene, before continents were as widely spaced as they are today.

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Map of the Georgia bight.  The shaded area was above sea level from ~80,000BP-~7,000 BP.  Bluefish prefer shallow coastal water, so their range must have been shifted off the continental shelf during Ice Ages.

Bluefish range map.  DNA studies suggest American and eastern bluefish populations have been isolated from each other for 480,000 years.

Bluefish

John Lawson said bluefish taste like salmon.  I’ve never caught one, nor have I ever seen one in the grocery store.

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School of bluefish.

During glacial periods when much of the continental shelf was above sea level, bluefish must have inhabited bays and river mouths.  There were steep drop-offs adjacent to the continental shelf with deeper water than bluefish prefer.  The Gulf Stream shut down during stadials (the coldest periods of Ice Ages), and there would have been no bluefish migration north because the water temperatures were too cold.  Bluefish range was restricted to tropical/semi-tropical waters during stadials.  The northern bluefish migrations resumed during interstadials when the Gulf Stream periodically restarted and began carrying tropically heated water farther north again.

References:

Hersey, John

Blues

Vintage Books 1987

Miralles, Laura; et. al.

“Paleoclimate Shaped Bluefish Structure in the Northern Hemisphere”

Fisheries 2014

Why did the Giant Great White Shark (Carchocles megalodon) Become Extinct?

April 29, 2016

The giant great white shark (Carchocles megalodon) existed as a species from ~23 million years BP until ~2.6 million years BP, and the evidence suggests this 60 foot monster preyed on whales.  It was 1 of the many marine species to become extinct during the late Pliocene.  Scientists believed megalodon was a warm water species and couldn’t survive cooling ocean waters that resulted from the emergence of the landbridge between North and South America.  However, a brand new study determined climate change could not have been the cause of megalodon’s extinction.

The authors of this study mapped out all of the sites where megalodon fossil teeth have been collected along with all fossil shark collection sites where megalodon remains were absent.  They estimated the range of the species over geologic time. Megalodon, though it originated in tropical waters, later expanded its range to waters that are thought to have been quite cold.  During glacial maximums megalodon’s potential habitat range shrank by a mere 2%, while it expanded by 8% during warmer interglacials.  Most of the area where megalodon lived was not “negatively impacted by climate change.”

Populations of C. megalodon over time. From Pimiento et al., 2016.

Map of megalodon fossil collection sites, dated over geological time periods.  From the below referenced paper.

If climate change didn’t snuff out megalodon, what was the cause of its extinction?  The researchers who published this study suggest 2 possible causes: a reduction in whale species diversity, and competition with other predators.  They note a decline in whale species diversity during the end of the Miocene is correlated with an apparent decrease in megalodon’s range distribution.  This seems a plausible explanation.  Many of megalodon’s favorite prey species went extinct, depriving the giant shark of food that it could efficiently feast upon.  I’m not convinced competition with other predators was a factor in megalodon’s extinction.  An extinct predatory species of sperm whale (Livyatan  melvillei) likely fed upon the same prey species as megalodon.  The ancestors of the modern day great white sharks (Carcharodon hubbeli) and killer whales (Orca sp.), also may have shared the same prey items.  However, megalodon co-existed with these species for millions of years, so I have a hard time accepting this explanation.

Size comparison between megalodon, a killer whale, and a human. A pod of killer whales could’ve rubbed out a single megalodon.  Perhaps this was a factor in their extinction.

skeletal reconstruction Livyatan melvillei by Christopher252

An extinct species of predatory sperm whale–Livyatan melvillei–probably competed with megalodon for the same prey.  

The extinction of megalodon may have  shaped the evolution of baleen whales.  Whales no longer had to be agile fast swimmers to escape megalodon, but instead could grow to a great size that enabled them to store food as blubber.  The stored fat helped baleen whales swim long distances to warmer waters for breeding and calving.  Killer whales, their lone remaining non-human predator, are less common in warmer waters, and whale calves have a greater chance of survival there.

Reference:

Pimiento, Catalina; et. al.

“Geographical Distribution Patterns of Carchocles megalodon over time Reveal Clues about Extinction Mechanisms”

Journal of Biogeography March 2016

Pleistocene Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)

March 8, 2016

A large population of 7 foot long, 150 pound paddlefishes lived in the primeval waters of the Mississippi River Drainage System  from well before the Pleistocene until the 19th century when humans began overexploiting this species.  An even larger population of smaller individuals also swam these waters for eons.  Millions upon millions of paddlefishes existed for tens of thousands of generations, yet, as far as I can determine from the scientific literature, not a single fossil specimen of Pleistocene Age has ever been found.  The paddlefish is a primitive species with a body structure supported by cartilage rather than bone.  There is nothing on their body that is hard and durable, therefore, evidence of their past existence is very unlikely to survive the ravages of time.  Sharks are also primitive fishes supported by cartilage, but at least they have hard teeth that do resist decomposition.  There isn’t even much evidence of paddlefish in the archaeological record, though Indians certainly utilized this species.  The remains of a paddlefish were excavated from a Native-American midden located in Wisconsin.

Scientists do know the paddlefish is an ancient species, possibly originating before the dinosaurs.  William Bemis, a paleontologist, described a Cretaceous Age fossil of a paddlefish found in Montana as “remarkably like (the 2) living species of polyodon.”  The only other extant species of paddlefish in the world occurs in Chinese rivers, and its scientific name is Polyodon gladius.  The 2 living species probably diverged during the Miocene between 25 million-5 million years BP, when climatic changes led to an environmental barrier that divided the American population from the Asian gene pool.  Genetic evidence suggests the American paddlefish has been uniform for a long time.  They travel great distances throughout the Mississippi River Drainage System and interbreed freely and do not live in isolated populations.  One tagged specimen caught in Moon Lake, Mississippi was captured later 870 miles away in Illinois.

American Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula).

The American paddlefish filter-feeding. No Pleistocene aged specimens of this species have ever been found because they are made of cartilage.  The adults have no teeth.

Paddlefish range map.  Paddlefish are now extinct on the periphery of their northeastern range and their populations are in decline elsewhere.

Paddlefish live in large rivers, braided channels, and oxbow lakes.  All of these habitats existed during the Pleistocene.  Braided channels more commonly formed during cold arid phases of Ice Ages.  The lower water table resulted in channels cut off and choked with sandbars.  Warmer wetter climate phases caused an increase in the formation of oxbow lakes as overflowing waters meandered more.  Paddlefish thrived in both habitats wherever there was an abundance of zooplankton.  Paddlefish use their unusual paddle-like structures to locate the tiny crustaceans and insects upon which they filter feed.  Their diet of mini-crustaceans probably explains why their flesh reportedly tastes like lobster.  They are still referred to as “poor man’s lobster,” even though this endangered fish is now rarer in fish markets than actual lobster.

Moon Lake, Mississippi still supports a commercial fishery for paddlefish.  They were so abundant during the early 20th century here that 100 could be caught in a single purse-seine haul.  The catch is much reduced today.

Moon Lake, Mississippi, an oxbow adjacent to the Mississippi River, still has a viable population of endangered paddlefish.

Oxbow lake formation fascinates me.  An oxbow lake is the remains of a meander that gets cut off from the main flow of the river, following a period of high water when the river surges over land to connect the shortest distance between 2 points.  These natural formations provided the only lake habitats over much of the south until man began building reservoirs.  Eventually, sediment builds in oxbow lakes until they evolve into marshes and then dry land.  Old oxbows that dry out are known as meander scars.

References:

Hoover, Jeffrey; et. al.

“Age and Reproductive Condition of an Unusually Large Bighead Carp from the Lower Mississippi River Basin”

Southeastern Naturalist 14 (4) 2015

Theler, James

“Animal Remains from Native American Archaeological Sites in Western Wisconsin”

Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Art, and Letters 2010

 

 

393,646 Gulf Menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) in the Alabama River

February 25, 2015

Researchers studying fish assemblages in the Alabama River netted 393,646 gulf menhaden, a remarkable collection because this species had previously been unrecorded from this tributary.  Scientists investigating the fish composition of the Alabama River  used nets to sample 19 sand and gravel bars from mile 22.9 to mile 72.  They sampled night and day as well as seasonally.  In all they collected 48 species from 41 sampling locations.  They discovered 2 other species previously unrecorded from the Alabama River–gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis) and inland silverside (Menidia beryllina).  The purpose of this study was to compare their fish survey with past collections to gain insight into how fish assemblages change over time.  180 fish species have been recorded from the Alabama River including 33 found nowhere else in the world.  The scientists who conducted their study found low similarity between their sampling and past collections.

Gulf menhaden.  Formerly unknown in the Alabama River, it is now perhaps the most abundant species there.

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Map of the Coosa, Alabama, and Tombigbee Rivers.  Incidentally, an ornithologist from Auburn University claims to have seen an ivory-billed woodpecker in the bottomland forests of the Tombigbee River.

River conditions change drastically over time.  Dike-building, damming, and dredging greatly alter modern day river patterns, thus influencing the composition and abundance of various fish species.  But before man colonized southeastern North America, changes in climate also greatly altered river patterns.  During cold dry climate stages, rivers changed into braided patterns, shrinking in size and becoming clogged with sand bars.  Flooding was far less common.  Sudden shifts to warm climate phases transformed rivers to a supermeandering pattern when massive floods were common.  Eventually, rivers settled into a normal meandering pattern with a moderate frequency of flooding, such as occurs today.  Meandering patterns create oxbow lakes–an habitat favorable for bass, crappie, and sunfish.  The changing river patterns of the Pleistocene undoubtedly caused fish assemblages to change in abundance and variety of species.  It would be interesting if we could go back in time and sample rivers at intervals of a century for tens of thousands of years.  Probably, no 2 samples would show any similarity.  Changing conditions created favorable habitat for some species, but chance colonization probably played an important role in fish species abundance and composition.  The prevalence of gulf menhaden in the Alabama River is an example of a chance colonization when a species just happens to find new habitat.

Reference:

Haley, T. Heath; and Carol Johnston

“Fish Assemblage on Sand/Gravel Bar Habitat in the Alabama River, Alabama”

Southeastern Naturalist 13 (3) 2014

*****

I just began subscribing to the Southeastern Naturalist.  I realized I was interested in every article this journal publishes, and the material will provide endless speculative fodder for my blog.  I do have 1 complaint about this journal, however.  I’ve noticed a fetish for complex statistics in many of the articles that get published.  I believe charts of raw data would be much more interesting than complex statistics understood by few other than statisticians.  For example the above referenced article becomes weighted down with a statistical analysis when charts of just the raw data would have been more interesting.  I would like to have seen charts of every species of fish surveyed along with how many, when, and where each specimen was caught.  This chart could have been compared with a chart of species sampled from historical collections.  Everybody reading the article would have understood this data, but I doubt anybody, other than the authors, fully understood their statistical analysis.

 

Identifying the Species of Fish described by John Lawson in 1710 (part 2)

August 31, 2014

Lawson admitted his list of freshwater fishes left out many species because he had explored the inland regions of the Carolinas during winter, a season when the natives didn’t often fish.  He starts his list with the sturgeon.  During his time the sturgeon was so common that a person could see “several hundreds of them in one day.”  Sadly, the sturgeon is almost extinct in North Carolina today, and there is no breeding population there.  The fish Lawson refers to as a pike is known today as the chain pickerel.  He caught 300 of them one day in his fish trap on the Neuse River.  I believe there is no river in North America today that would yield 300 chain pickerel in one trap within a 24 hour period.  This shows just how depleted America’s rivers are compared to yesteryear.  Some estimate there are 1000 times less fish in our rivers than existed during pre-colonial times.  

Chain pickerel. (Esox niger)  Lawson pulled 300 of these from his fish trap in the Neuse River on one occasion.

The trout Lawson mentions is undoubtedly the brook trout–the only native eastern species.  The fish he called the “English pearch” was actually the yellow perch and it was not the same species as found in England as Lawson mistakenly believed.  Lawson referred to the largemouth bass as a “brown pearch or Welchman” and again it was not the same species as found in England.  The fish he called a “flat or mottled pearch” is known today as the crappie.  Bream or freshwater sunfish were known by Lawson as “round-robins.”

Lawson claimed carp lived in Carolina but he was wrong.  Carp were not introduced to North America until 1831.  Instead, he may have had them confused with a native buffalo fish (Ictiobus bubalus) which does range into the western parts of the Carolinas in places he never vistited.  He does mention the “sucking fish” (suckers) and “cat-fish”, though he was unware that these 2 families of fish include many different species.

The fish Lawson called the “roach,” an English species, was most likely a type of shiner as was the fish he refered to as a “grindal.”  The fish he knew as the “gudgeon” was some type of minnow.  The fish he called a “loach” is the killifish.  He listed the dace, probably the long-nosed (Rhynicthys cataracterae).

Lawson knew alewives as “old-wives.”  The alewife is a type of herring that lives in the ocean and spawns in freshwater lakes and the deep slow bends of rivers.  The Indians used to dry and smoke alewives.  I remember seeing dead alewives littering a beach on Lake Erie, Ohio when I was a kid.  I had always assumed they died from pollution but that’s not the case.  Alewives are not native to the Great Lakes but instead colonized them by swimming through man-made canals.  Predatory fish populations had been devastated by overfishing, pollution, and lamprey colonization.  This allowed the alewife population to explode and during summer heatwaves, alewives would die by the thousands and wash up on the shore.  Incidentally, southerners not familiar with the Great Lakes probably don’t realize these bodies of water have big waves, just like the ocean.

Alewives. (Alosa pseudoharengus)

I’m not sure of the identity of Lawson’s “fountain fish.”  He wrote that they breed in the clear Running Springs and Fountains of Water, where the “clearness thereof makes them difficult to be taken.”  Perhaps, this is the fish known today as the creek chub (Semotilus atrumaculatus).

I can’t figure out what Lawson’s “white Fish” is.  He described them as being 2.5 feet or more long and were found in the “Freshes of the Rivers.”  I doubt he meant the white fish (Coregonus clupeaformis) found today in the Great Lakes.

The fish he called “Barbout” and “Miller’s Thumbs” is the freshwater cod or burbot (Lota lota).  I don’t think he ever saw this fish in person.  Within historical times this species was not known to have occurred south of the Kentucky River, though during the Ice Age it may have lived farther south.

A burbot or freshwater cod (Lota lota).  This species prefers deep cold lakes and during Lawson’s time probably didn’t range farther south than the Kentucky River.

Identifying the Species of Fish Described by John Lawson in 1710 (Part 1)

August 27, 2014

John Lawson wrote the first American natural history book circa 1710 after settling in North Carolina.  (See:https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/07/27/john-lawsons-voyage-to-carolina-1700-1711/)  I often consult his work to obtain insight about the early unmodified environments of the southeast.  His chapter on fish is particularly confusing because he uses arcane common names, no longer in usage.  He also mistakenly refers to some species as the same as those found in England.  This is not true of any species.  So I gave myself a little project and attempted to decipher which species he was referring to in each individual description.  I used descriptions typed into search engines and information found from the obscure book referenced below to identify almost all the species he catalogued.  It’s evident that he directly encountered some species, but only knew about others from hearsay.  I now offer the results of my study.

Lawson includes the whales with the fishes.  Like most people living during this time period, he never enjoyed the benefit of a biology class and was unaware that whales are mammals.  He wrote about 4 “sorts” of whales.  He did not know of the many more species that live off the coast of Carolina.  He reports 1 “sperma ceti” whale washed up on Currituck Inlet, and how the local beachcombers “profited” from it.  Apparently, there were people living along the coast then who made a living scavenging shipwrecks and dead whales.  His “sperma ceti” whale is obviously known today as just the sperm whale.  He was also aware of the bottle-nosed whale, a deep sea species that lives in underwater canyons where it feeds upon squid and fish.  Bottle-nosed whales can stay submerged for an astonishing 2 hours.

Bottle-nosed whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus).  Lawson was aware of this deep water species of whale.  He mistakenly classified whales as fish.

Lawson mistakenly refers to killer whales as 2 different species–the thrasher and the crampois.  He claimed bottle-nosed whales always washed ashore minus their tongues which were eaten by “thrashers” and swordfish.  Killer whales will attack and eat other whales but swordfish do not.  Lawson also knew dolphins as “bottle-noses.”

I could not identify 2 other whales Lawson catalogued.  I could find no whale matching the description of a “shovel-nosed” whale, and there is no whale that is 60 feet long but just 3 or 4 feet in diameter.  I assume he was just wrong about the measurements.

I was excited when I read Lawson’s account of porpoises being found in a freshwater lake in North Carolina.  I thought I had come across a unique curiosity.  However, large lakes on the North Carolina coastal plain are Carolina Bays with no outlet to the sea.  And the lake is described as being located in a “great sound” which would mean it was saltwater.  Therefore, I’ve concluded Lawson was mistaken again.  Instead, he may be referring to a bay in Maryland known as Porpoise Bay and the porpoises  it’s named after may have been dolphins.  Porpoises are a cold water species that differ from dolphins by having shorter snouts.  They do range as far south as North Carolina during winter, so it’s possible the place was named based on the correct animal.

Porpoise Pond is located in Assawoman Bay, Maryland.  Is this the body of water where Lawson claimed porpoises lived in freshwater?  I think he wrongly was told this was a freshwater body of water, but it is actually saltwater.

The manta ray was known then as the “divel fish” and still is in some archaic circles.  Lawson recounts a case when a “divel fish” got caught in a sloop’s anchor line and dragged it at least a mile against the tide.  A similar even occurred in 1933 off the coast of New Jersey.

Giant Devil Ray

This manta ray with a 20 foot wingspan almost sank a boat.  A Coast Guardsmen shot it 20 times to save the endangered men on board.  Happened off the coast of New Jersey in 1933.

Lawson includes 2 “sorts” of sharks on his list, but he called one a “Paracooda” that I interpet as a misspelling of barracuda which is not even a shark.  He later adds the dogfish to his list and correctly categorizes it as of the “shark kind.”

Many of the species in his catalogue were easy to identify because the names he used are still their common names–Spanish mackerel, mullets, swordfish, shad, stingray, thornback stingray, conger eels, eels, lamprey eels, red drum, black drum, sheepshead, flounder, trouts of saltwater, croaker, toadfish, ocean sunfish, and herring.  Others took just a little deciphering.  His name for menhadden was fat-back, an obscure name little used today.  His description of the “guard” indicates he probably misheard the locals as they referred to this fish as the gar.  Lawson classified the gar as a saltwater fish.  Although gars are common in brackish waters, they are considered a freshwater species. 

Cavallies was a little more difficult to decipher, but I learned this is an archaic term for crevalle jack (Caranx hippo). His bass, or rockfish, is the striped bass, still known as rockfish by many.  The fish he calls a “sea tench” is most likely the tautog (Tautoga onitis).  Boneto is a mispelling of bonita, a type of tuna.  His angelfish includes members of the Pomancanthidae family.

Crevalle jack (Caranx hippos).  Lawson called them Cavallies. He wrote they stayed sweet for twice as long as other fish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tautog-a wrasse that lives as far south as South Carolina.

Lawson lists smelts as a fish living in the region, but he probably was referring to a similar-looking fish known as the silverside (Meridia meridia).  Smelts do not live as far south as Carolina.  The fish he calls a “sea bream” is likely a porgy from the Caridae family.  I could not determine what fish he named the “taylor.”

The culinary properties of the fish he catalogued seemed to be the most important attribute in his descriptions.  This is not surprising–his diet mostly consisted of wild animals he could kill and vegetables he could grow.  He praised the good eating qualities of crevalle jacks, mackerel, drums, sea trout, and eels.  He liked sheepshead but wrote that it was no better than many other species of fish, despite its fine reputation.  He thought bluefish among the best of fishes, “full as good meat as salmon.”  Menhaden contained so much natural oil they could be fried directly in a pan without the addition of fat, and Lawson referred to them as “a very sweet food.”  Menhaden comes from the Indian word meaning fertilizer, and today this is the most common use for this species.  Early Settlers liked to eat menhaden as well as to use them to fertilize their crops.

North Carolina is famous for its bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix).  Lawson said they were as good meat as salmon.

In my next entry, I’ll decipher Lawson’s descriptions of freshwater fish.

Refererences:

Lawson, John

A New Voyage to Carolina

North Carolina Press 1967

Smith, Hugh

The Fishes of North Carolina

Originally published in 1907, republished by Cornell University in 2009

There May Be 5 Species of Shoal Bass Previously Described as 1

August 23, 2014

New discoveries await those entering the field of biological research.  Scientists have uncovered volumes of knowledge, yet we still know so little.  Nevertheless, it’s surprising that in Georgia, in the midst of what most would consider an advanced civilization,  there may be as many as 5 distinct species of bass left undescribed by science.  Byron Freeman and other scientists are using anatomical and DNA comparisons to remedy this unlikely gap in ichthylogical classification.

 

Redeye bass.  There may be 5 different species of shoal bass wrongly considered the same species.

Shoal basses; along with largemouth bass, crappies, and sunfish; belong to the Centrarchidae family.  Shoal basses favor rocky stretches of river too warm for trout, yet too cool for largemouth bass, though there is some overlap on both ends.  Dr. Freeman discovered that various specimens of a species of shoal bass, known as the redeye bass (Micropterus coosae), differed strikingly, depending upon which river they came from.  By comparing 20 anatomical characteristics, Dr. Freeman was able to determine that shoal basses from the Coosa, Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Savannah, and Altamaha rivers all differed from each other enough to be considered separate species.  Differences in shoal bass DNA sequencing supports his discovery. The scientific name, Micropterus bartrami, or Bartram’s bass, has been proposed for a species living in the Savannah River.

All of these species share a close evolutionary relationship.  It’s likely the founding population of shoal bass became geographically isolated due to stream capture events when the headwaters of 1 stream eroded backwards and captured the flow of another. For example a tributary of the Savannah River captured a tributary of the Chattahoochee, explaining how speciation occurred between shoal basses from these 2 rivers.  (See:https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/tallulah-gorge/) Similar geological events probably explain the evolutionary divergence of other shoal basses.

All of these species hybridize with each other, showing the difference between species is a gray area.  Hybridization via backcrossing is another way new species can originate.  By introducing a species of shoal bass into another species of shoal bass’s range, man may inadvertently create a new species.  However, scientists are concerned that introductions of smallmouth bass into shoal bass habitat will result in the latter’s extinction.

See also: https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/04/26/the-evolutionary-history-of-the-black-bass-genus-micropterus-sp/

Reference:

Freeman, Byron; et. al.

“Shoal Basses, a Clade of Cryptic Identity”

Black Bass Symposium 2013

Black Bears Catching Shad–A Forlorn Scene of Nature

March 6, 2014

Many nature scenes, common just a few hundred years ago, shall never be seen again.  Some examples of forlorn nature scenes from Georgia that I’ve discussed on this blog include herds of elk and bison grazing on surpentine barren hilltops, flocks of migrating passenger pigeons darkening the sky, a forest of gigantic black oaks with each tree measuring between 8-11 feet in diameter, stands of bamboo cane covering many square miles, a river full of spawning sturgeon, etc.  The thought that these scenes will never exist again gives me feelings of melancholy and loss.  One other nearly forgotten scene would be when black bears caught spawning shad in rivers of eastern North America.  This no longer occurs because black bears have been extirpated from regions where shad still spawn.  Black bears probably preyed upon spawning shad and other species of herring for at least 1 million years, but man completely ended this ecological relationship.  For nature lovers this is just sad.

Illustration from John Lawson’s New Voyage to South Carolina, published circa 1710.  Lawson reported black bears regularly catching spawning shad in eastern rivers and such a scene is depicted in the left lower corner of this illustration.  Black bears have been extirpated from regions where shad still spawn.

Black bear (Ursus americanus).  Formerly common for over a million years, it has been eradicated from most of is original range.

Alaskan brown bears (Ursus arctos) are often filmed catching salmon is remote wilderness areas.  Therefore, nature lovers associate a bear catching a fish with wilderness.  That eastern North America was once just as wild as Alaska seems to be largely forgotten or never thought upon by most people.

John Lawson, an early English explorer and settler of the Carolinas (1700-1711), took note of the black bear’s habit of catching shad and herring during their spring runs. Bear was his favorite meat.  He highly praised the culinary properties of bear meat and fat, but he warned his readers not to eat them during spring when the bruins were gorging upon herrings, for then they tasted “filthily.”

The American shad is in the herring family.

The American shad (Alosa supidissima) is a member of the herring family.  It is an anadromous fish, living most its life in deep ocean waters but swimming up freshwater rivers to spawn in the spring.  Adults that spawn in northern rivers survive and swim back to sea, but those spawning in southern rivers die after spawning.  The eggs, laid on sandy pebbly bottoms, hatch after a week, and the fingerlings make it to the ocean by fall.  A female shad can lay up to 150,000 eggs.  Shad feed upon plankton, small shrimp, and other fish’s eggs, and they will bite during their spawning run, unlike salmon.  Two other species of herring spawn in eastern rivers–the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) and alewife (A. pseudohorega).

Herring are rich in the healthy kind of fat.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska destroyed stocks of herring there, and marine life has since struggled to recover.  There are far fewer seals in Prudhoe Bay, even though pollock (the fish most often processed into fish sticks) is still abundant.  Pollock just doesn’t have the nutritive quality of herring.

Planked shad and shad roe with bacon is considered a classic American dish, but I’ve never had the opportunity to eat it.  Herring reportedly have many small bones that make them difficult to eat.  The vinegar in marinated herring dissolves these small bones.  I do enjoy marinated herring on occasion.  I’ve read that some cooks slash the herring and deep fry their slashed fish.  The hot oil supposedly seeps into the slashes and melts the small bones.  I have eaten bream eggs…they taste just like chicken eggs, though a little more bland.  To prepare, drop the fish eggs in boiling salted water for a minute.  Remove with a slotted spoon and serve on toast rounds with mustard.  Expensive caviar pretty much tastes like fish guts but when mixed with cream cheese I can get it down.  Boiled bream eggs are better.