Monday, May 21, 2012

Ten Fun Tidbits (Roughly) About PICKEREL!

The chain pickerel, Esox niger
10.  The Chain Pickerel (Esox niger) is a freshwater fish that lives in the warm, weedy ponds of the eastern USA and Canada.  If a chain pickerel is very lucky, it might grow three feet long, weigh eight pounds, and live for 9 years - but the ones you usually see/catch recreationally (and release!) are only a foot (30-40 cm).

9.  Pickerel are from the family Esocidae, called pike-fish by the English because they are long and pointy like the eponymous weapon!  There are five species from the family Esocidae from the eastern USA and Canada.  One species, the Northern Pike (Esox lucius), also naturally occurs in Eurasia - one of the few freshwater species to occur naturally on different continents!

8. In Canada, "pickerel" refers to Sander vitreus, a species we call walleye, or wall-eyed pike.  Of course, both names are misleading because Sander vitreus is simply not a pike (i.e. not a member of the family Esocidae)!  Thus, the problem of common names!

In reality, a frog would rarely see this grass pickerel coming.
7.  Pickerels and pikes are like freshwater barracuda!  While juveniles eat bugs and crayfish, the adults are piscivorous (fish-eating) ambush predators!  Thanks to their sharp teeth and quick bursts of speed, they can also eat nearly anything they can fit in their mouth - including frogs, small mammals, and even birds!

6.  Pickerel survive icy northern winters by moving from shallow weedy areas to deep waters that won't freeze over. Because their metabolism slows down, a pickerel that might normally need to feed every day can last nearly two weeks without a meal in winter!

Now THIS would be a team...  The Boston Esox.
5.  Pickerel are "dioecious," meaning they have separate sexes as determined by their genetic makeup; they are born either male or female, and stay that way (like humans).  (Yes, this is not true for all animals!)  When the springtime comes, they move up from the deep water back to weedy shallows where the females can attach thousands of sinking eggs to the plants, and the hatching young will be able to hide and hunt plant-eating prey.

4.  A "Tiger Muskie" is a cross between two pickerel sister species - the Northern Pike and a Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy, from the Algonquian tribes' words for "great pike-fish," or "ugly pike-fish").  Like most hybrid species, they are infertile.  This means that wherever they occur naturally, they are not members of a long, proud line of pure heritage, but rather the beautiful offspring of chance passion between distinctly different parents.  Were they confused, these parents?  Lame creatures, merely misled, fooled by each other?  Or were they passionate risk takers, chasing a biologically forbidden love?

Taking species management in our own hands (Esox lucius)
3.  Pickerel have mostly escaped our insatiable hunger because of the work it takes to get a meal out of them - they are small, have many little bones, and must have their poor-tasting skin removed (Westerners are very picky eaters).  But pikes, muskies, and tiger muskies are trophy fish, and can be good eating; thus, our attentions often extirpate (i.e. eliminate) them from their lake and pond homes.  Also thus, they are often grown in government hatcheries and stocked in our lakes and ponds so they can survive despite lethal doses of human attention!  We even grow tiger muskies, despite the difficulty in recreating the rare event.  Stocking may seem like species imprisonment, but we're just trying to pay for what we take.  Wild stock (and thus wild DNA) still exist, and this is what we are really protecting.
(baby tiger muskie pic)

2.  The larger Esox (pikes and muskies) are not native to Massachusetts.  In 1950, hundreds of 12+ inch northern pike adults were brought up from Lake Champlain in New York and released around Berkshire country in that year in hopes of establishing reproducing populations, mostly for sport.  I wonder what it was like to drive that payload!
and of course....
wait for it...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Phyllobius intrusus: a pre-pickerel post

Maybe someday?
Phyllobius (fil-OH-bee-yus).  
Say it with me.  Phyllobius!

Phyllobius intrusus!
(From Advanced Hexes for Hogwarts 5th Years)

I was running between mom and dad's house again, which they don't like because there's no path.  I just crash through a garden and then a row of defensive shrubs.  Don't try this at home kids; your parents (might) kick you out!  The shrubs were "Arborvitae" (Thuja occidentalis), a beautiful American evergreen.  Shortly after crashing through, a crawling on my calves signaled arboreal stowaways!  Eek!  I reached down, let the unseen bugs crawl onto my hand and brought them to my eyes for a closer inspection - and I discovered they were fantastic mossy bronze Arborvitae Weevils (Phyllobius intrusus)!  AND WEEVILS ARE SO CUTE!!!

An Arborvitae Weevil (Phyllobius intrusus) considers the day's challenges.

Weevils, also called 'snout beetles,' are insects from the family Curculionidae, the world's most speciose animal family, with 60,000 species known worldwide!  They don't sting or bite; they are herbivores, and many rely exclusively on only one species of host plant!  Thus many famous crop "pests" are weevils, just trying to carry out their lives on a host plant that humans happen to be cultivating.  If there are enough living on/in the host plant, the plant may wither and die, or just be too unsightly to sell to other humans.  I can understand disliking them if your crop is ruined, but if you find them at home in your pasta, don't throw it away in disgust!  It's extra protein!  And who knows, maybe you'll get super weevil powers by consuming them!

You might become a regular Weevil Knievel!
(I wish I could have been the first to think of that pun, but the world's a big place.  See a real diorama of a Weevil Knievel here; or listen to Weevil Knievel, the UK rock group!)

Since there are so many species of weevils, it's tough to work out a species-specific adventure story like I do with the other creatures I post on the blog.  You must dig through mountains of old books in a musty library in some prestigious university (Harvard would be a good start) before you find the primary source account for your chosen weevil, written by a crazy person who has watched wild weevils for hours scientist.  ...Which explains why after taking photos, I went back and stared at weevils for a little while, hoping to catch their story.  It's peaceful to obey your curiosity and just watch.  Standing tall, a weevil waves his antennae, sniffing out dilute pheromones wafting on the spring breeze.  Then spreading his tarnished copper elytra apart, his wings lift him away in search of a choicer perch...
But there was more to the Arborvitae than the weevils.

Citizens of the Arborvitae Treecosystem
 You see, while on my knees in the rainy mud photographing the tiny beasts, I noticed many other creatures - flies, spiders, and even a slug!  Until now, I'd ignored this tiny forest in my backyard; I'm a coral reef snob.  But through the lens of a camera I can discover ecosystems as intricate as any coral reef's algal turf...  To critters this small, a shrub is a city; a community of different species of various sizes, shapes, jobs, eating habits, and population sizes.  And at least for Phyllobius intrusus on the Arborvitae, the only city it will ever know.  I've decided to call it a "tree-cosystem."  I encourage you all to go find out who lives in one of the treecosystems near you!

...I wish.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Diving Blue Heron Bridge (Riviera Beach, Florida)

"Blue Heron Bridge," Riviera Beach, Florida
This will be a confusing story.  I'm writing about an event a week past, and one that came together with minimal planning.  If it sounds zany... Just keep reading!  So...  My mother has a second house on Florida's west coast; Fort Myers.  Twice a year she migrates - down in winter, up in summer.  Last week she invited me down to see her winter home and help her with the drive back north.  I flew down on a one-way ticket - with all my dive gear and camera equipment, just in case!  When I arrived, I negotiated use of the car for a few days of adventure (huzzah!).  I wanted to dive, but I wouldn't be able to make it to the Florida keys - I had already planned to visit friends in Melbourne, which was the opposite direction.  Dive, or reconnect with friends?  In my frustration, a dive site name floated from my subconscious - "Blue Heron Bridge," aha!

What wonders await in the water under the bridge?
Riviera Beach, the bridge's home town, was only a slight detour from my journey to Melbourne across the Florida peninsula, so I could dive and see friends!  I'd first heard about the bridge a few months ago; diver/filmmaker Stan Waterman was presenting a documentary about it in Boston at a scuba diving convention.  Though I didn't get to see the film, it described the water under the bridge as a "world class dive," home to "remarkable macro life."  ("Macro," though from Greek origin meaning "large," oddly refers to tiny creatures; this is because special long lenses like mine enlarge the critter's size on the camera's sensor, making them look larger than life.)  Testimonies to the uniqueness of this site are scattered all over the internet diving community;  YouTube videos, forum posts, blogs, and websites offering maps, tips, and species identification guides.  Being a fan of tiny creatures, I had to dive it!  I had to look for slugs there!

Lantern Bass (Serranus baldwini)
One problem, I thought to myself the night before leaving: I had no dive buddy.  Ah, but why not go have a look?  I already brought all my gear.  Maybe I'd find a buddy there! FOR ADVENTURE!  The next morning found me speeding out mom's Florida driveway at 7:30 AM, fueled by excitement and mushroom omelette.  Three hours later, I rolled up to Force-E Divers in Riviera Beach with a bug-splattered windshield (that's crossing Florida, for ya), ready to rent some air and find a buddy.  I even arrived perfectly on time to catch high tide at 11:30 AM.  See, slack high tide (the peak) has the clearest and slowest water; when the tide is running, visibility drops to a few feet and the current will drag you right out from under the pilings.  I didn't find any divers to buddy up with hanging around the shop, but for the sake of adventure I rented a tank and dive flag and hoped there'd be others at the bridge.  My watch said 10:50, I thanked the dive shop staff and sped over to Phil Foster Park, the entry area for the dive.  FOR ADVENTURE!

Artist's rendition of the frantic unloading...
Phil Foster Park is one of the reasons this is such an excellent dive - ease of access.  The park is halfway across the Indian River Lagoon (OK, so the "Blue Heron Bridge" dive site is really two bridges with an island in the middle; it's to the right in the first photo on this blog).  The park has a picnic area, playground, fish cleaning station, charcoal grills, freshwater showers, a walk-in sandy beach entry right under the bridge, and free parking!  I wasted no time when I pulled into a space - I leapt from the driver's seat and dragged my gear out after me.  I'd assembled and double-checked my camera the night before, so I could just plop it on the car's roof while assembling the scuba equipment.  It was only when I had one wetsuit arm half-on that I noticed a neoprene-clad couple eating bananas and staring at me in the next parking space.  I must have seemed such a madman!  I followed their eyes to my fancy camera, to my scuba gear, to me jumping into my wetsuit - and suddenly I realized I looked like a very serious diver, indeed.  I had to laugh at myself - I am a serious diver, look at that!  Ha!  When did that happen?  We spoke for a bit, but they were only snorkeling, no dive buddies there.  I put on my tank, grabbed my camera, and headed to the beach - 11:15.  FOR ADVENTURE!

As fate would have it, several divers had flocked to the water's edge for the high tide.  Where had they come from?  I introduced myself to a couple of med students - Jason and Byron - who were also having a photo dive.  I realized that it would be impossible not to be within sight of at least one diver while under, and the whole site was only 10-15 feet deep at the maximum.  I decided to dive; I wouldn't be alone.  I put in my regulator, grabbed my camera, and let my dive weights pull me to the underworld.  The clear water brought by the high tide revealed what beauty had been masked only minutes before.  Wrasses danced in the bouncing light just outside the bridge's shadow, while brooding predators lurked and plotted just within it.  The pilings loomed out of the shadows like skyscrapers of life in a forgotten sunken city, residents peeking out curiously at the unidentified swimming object drifting down their boulevards.  How rich in life!  When I was shooting a shame-faced crab, Calappa sp., it actually walked right over the back of a small flounder!  Unfazed, the flounder posed for my camera - but the flash startled it and it swam into an arrow crab's den (Stenorhynchus sp.)!  Normally, these creatures require a bit more of an eye to find - they don't just swim into each other's company!  These normally "hard to find" critters were everywhere!  I lost count of the beautiful boxing shrimp (Stenopus hispidus) that were in every crack and crevice, crustacean apartments.  I had to watch the bottom to avoid the spines of countless decorator urchins, sunken city soldiers wielding broken shells and rotten seagrass atop their tests like shields.  Young lobsters filled holes where Stenopus did not.  And of course, among the algae and the rubble, there were even a few opisthobranchs, the rare gems of the city!

Shamefaced Crab (Calappa sp.)

Arrow Crab (Stenorhynchus sp.)

An urchin defender, with many swords and shields!
I was in the water for an hour and a half, but it was not enough time.  My long camera lens forced my eyes down into the rubble to find little critters, but the realization that it was my first dive there made me glance up every so often.  What a dive it would have been with a fellow photographer - or even if I'd left the camera at home.  At one point I had to untangle my dive flag from the bridge's concrete pilings, so I put my camera down.  When I returned, two plate-sized filefish were swimming over it, staring at their reflections in the lens!  If only I'd had a second camera.  I accompanied Jason and Byron to lunch after surfacing, and they showed me their pictures of a seahorse, a massive stingray, and a frogfish - all of which I'd overlooked during my slug hunting.  I myself had only seen one seahorse and one frogfish in all my dive adventures to date!  They told me more about their dive over a few drinks, and I realized I'd been away from the Atlantic's wonders for too long.  (Another diver I met afterwards sent me a link to her bridge photos, too - wow!)

Juvenile High-Hat (Equetus acuminatus)
Why was this one site such a a hotspot for tiny, uncommon critters?  There are many possible reasons; primarily those associated with its location in an estuarine lagoon adjacent an oceanic inlet.  With every incoming tide, eggs and larvae of countless sea critters that have been carried up the coast from the Caribbean drift into the inlet.  These offspring pass around the dozens of concrete pilings that lift the Blue Heron Boulevard over the Indian River Lagoon.  The massive structure acts as an artificial reef, providing lots of surface area for algae and even some corals to grow.  These forests provide food and shelter for the little creatures.  With every outgoing tide, lagoon water is pulled out to sea past the bridge - sometimes saltier due to evaporation, sometimes fresher due to rain and runoff.  Surely the lagoon water also carries nutrients from terrestrial runoff; nutrients that are normally depleted on offshore reefs.  So the bridge is a large habitat in a protected lagoon exposed to currents of incoming sea babies and tempered by fluctuating salinity and nutrient levels.  It helps that the bottom composition is rubble - large broken shells and pebbles provide more hiding places and camouflage for creatures than sand alone.  In addition, prevailing turbidity (i.e. low visibility) might mean that little critters cannot be easily hunted by visual predators.  Certainly the sheer abundance of juvenile High-Hats (Equetus acuminatus) would support this!

I don't regret the adventures I had after the dive that day, but I could have - should have - spent days under that bridge.  I felt like a newborn there; completely unprepared for the world around me, with so much yet to learn.  Hopefully I'll return someday to find more fascinating "macro" life!