Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Fish You Just Ate May Be More of a Globetrotter Than You Are

   Seafood is an integral component of southern culture, perhaps best exemplified by the platters of fried catfish on the menu in every hole in the wall restaurant from Brunswick, Georgia to Lake Charles, Louisiana.  And the Gulf of Mexico is renowned for its appetizing saltwater bounties, oil spill notwithstanding.  So, when I had a guest from out of town visit me in the Florida Panhandle, I was eager to show off all the region had to offer; almost immediately we headed to a local restaurant touting all-you-can-eat seafood.

    Considering my passion for both eating everything I can and local seafood, I didn’t think I had much need for a menu.  Almost as an afterthought, I asked the waitress what kind of fish I could expect to be piled in front of me, my head filled with fantasies of farmed channel catfish or perhaps, if I was lucky, some mackerel or snapper from the seas just to the south.  To my surprise, she didn’t know.  Briefly stepping away to yell into the kitchen, she returned with the verdict…Swai.


    As a vertebrate biologist, it’s not often I’m confronted with an animal I’ve never heard of, let alone when I’m sitting at the dinner table about to eat one.

    “And what is Swai?” I politely inquired.

    “It’s like a catfish, they farm it in Asia.”

    As I looked at the waitress and digested this new information, my eyes drifted around the restaurant, from the plastic crabs and fishing nets adorning the walls to the chalk boards advertising the price of Gulf shrimp and crawfish.  You mean to tell me, I thought to myself, this restaurant, named after a local seaside town, was shipping in something “like” a catfish from halfway across the world?  It turned out I would need that menu after all.

    When catfish was suggested as a potential alternative, I skeptically asked where it had originated; I was reassured when the waitress informed me it came from right here in Florida.  I’m happy to tell you it was delicious.

    Back at home, I decided to look into the curious case of Swai and spent some time researching the animal on the internet.  I learned this type of catfish, along with the closely related Basa, is native to a couple major rivers and their tributaries within southeastern Asia.  An important food source, the species is heavily farmed in ponds, particularly in Thailand and Vietnam.  Produced in mass quantities, the species represents a cheap source of fish, and that’s the reason it’s starting to show up in American markets.

    Catfish farmers in the United States have known about this trend for some time now.  Seeing their potential livelihood threatened by an inexpensive alternative, the catfish industry lobbied lawmakers for new regulations on the influx of Asian fish.  As a result of their efforts, it is now illegal for restaurants to sell Swai or Basa and call it catfish.  But they can still call it the Catch of the Day, feature it in their Fisherman’s Platter, or include it any other vaguely labeled dish. 

   Restaurateurs have a lot of freedom when writing the menu; along with fish distributors, they have been known to get creative in describing a particular species to make it sound more appetizing.  For example, the Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, is marketed in the United States as Chilean Sea Bass.  Which would you rather order, a Toothfish or a Sea Bass?

    I have no issue with eating Swai or Basa in general, although there are some concerns about how these fish are raised and questions regarding whether there may be health issues related to the associated farming practices; but I am an advocate for shopping locally.  Why ship anything across the planet, whether it’s a pair of pants or tonight’s dinner, when you can buy it next door?

    The next week, at another seafood restaurant, I was once again confronted with a dilemma.  The waves of the Gulf of Mexico lapped against the deck of the waterfront restaurant as both fishing and sightseeing boats motored by.  I took deep breaths of salt air between swigs from my beer as I watched the sunset.  It was the classic seaside scene.

    Perhaps it was the atmosphere, perhaps it was the beer, but it wasn’t until my Fisherman’s Platter arrived before I thought to ask what kind of fried filet would grace my plate.

    This waitress was better prepared, “Panaceas”. 

    Well, I wasn’t na├»ve about the name of this fish.  I knew it was a made-up label to make whatever I was really eating sound more palatable; it’s the same word we use to describe something that will solve all of our problems (Panacea is also the Greek goddess of healing).  But, at least it wasn’t Swai, I told myself.  And, I could reach out and touch the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico from my table, what were the chances of eating a fish fillet that had been frozen and shipped thousands of miles before finally reaching my plate?  Surrounded by shrimp, scallops and French fries, I must confess to a moment of willful ignorance so I could enjoy the meal before me (it was fantastic).

    Something nagged at me though.  Back home, I returned to the internet to determine what kind of fish was being sold as Panaceas.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find any relevant hits.  On a hunch, I Googled Swai again for a closer look.  Realization slowly dawned over me as I slapped my forehead.  Both Swai and Basa are within the same genus, Pangasius.

    Want to learn the socioeconomic, human health, and environmental costs of the seafood you buy?  Check out the Smart Seafood Guide offered by the Food & Water Watch.  The Monterey Aquarium also offers handy pocket guides that recommend responsible seafood choices.  Live in Canada?  There's a guide for you too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mambas on the Loose in Minnesota

    A couple weeks ago an interesting news story about a snake in Minnesota caught my attention.  A family from Sauk Centre received a scare when a five foot long black serpent was spotted outside their home.  What happened next nearly defies belief.

     Black Rat Snakes range throughout the eastern United States.  One of the biggest species within this country, a large individual can span up to eight feet (2.4 m) long.  Harmless to humans, rat snakes feed on, you guessed it, small mammals such as rats and mice.  They’re also important predators of birds.  As they’re highly arboreal, the species spends much of their time crawling through bushes and trees and swallowing any bird eggs or nestlings they can track down.  Controlled studies have suggested rat snakes cue in on adult birds flying to and from a particular area to zero in on the location of bird nests.

    In the southeastern United States, the closely related Gray Rat Snake is commonly encountered crossing the road, lounging in trees adjacent to wetlands or taking up residence around farms.  Although they may not be a welcome guest within the chicken coop, many value the species for rodent control around barns and other buildings.

   Perhaps it’s because snakes are less common overall in more northern climates, but for some reason, although rat snakes are easily recognized as a normal component of the local fauna in the south, those in the northeast and Midwest often freak out and do very strange things when confronted by one.  I think people have a hard time accepting that such a large reptile could possible be a normal resident of their state, blanketed by snow through so much of the year.  Shouldn’t big snakes be found in Florida instead?

    But the fact is, big snakes do actually occur in areas that experience harsh winters, they just take up different strategies to cope with the cold.  For example, Black Rat Snakes, Timber Rattlesnakes, and Black Racers, all large snakes that can be found up and down the east coast, tend to hibernate in underground caverns and rocky caves.  Often, the different species can be found huddled together, perhaps due to a lack of suitable hibernation spots.  In this way they pass the winter months, while their cousins to the south enjoy much longer activity seasons and seldom find the need to escape the frost by engaging in a deep slumber.

   Black Rat Snakes are native to Minnesota, although the state is the limit of the species’ range and they are only found in the southeastern counties.  You may have guessed by now the snake found in Sauk Centre was a Black Rat Snake, but nobody there knew it.  I’ll spare you the details of this encounter, which ended poorly for the snake, but some on the scene were convinced it was a Black Mamba, a highly venomous species ranging through the nations of eastern Africa.  Despite their confidence in their identification skills, I doubt many there knew Black Mambas are actually green (unlike the Black Rat Snake before them).  Other theories suggested the snake was an escapee from a carnival that had passed through recently.

   In any case, when confronted with what some felt could be a highly dangerous animal (i.e. the Black Mamba), a particularly adventurous individual decided to kill it with an ice pick.  As an aside, if you’re ever walking through the wilds of Africa and suddenly come across what actually is a highly venomous snake, do not, under any circumstances, try to kill it with a handheld kitchen utensil.  Just walk away.

   The snake attracted more attention when it was dead than when it was alive, and I first heard of it in a news article that included a plea to contact the newspaper if the snake could be identified.  I responded, and after being provided additional photographs, confidently identified the species as the harmless Black Rat Snake I initially suspected.  The follow up story, in which yours truly is quoted, is here.

   As I mentioned, the Black Rat Snake is native to Minnesota (although only the southeastern corner) and this snake was found a couple hundred miles away from the nearest known population.  When I contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to ensure they knew of this possible range extension, I was informed their stance was this snake was captured elsewhere and released by someone in Sauk Centre.  To support their position, they noted that appropriate habitat didn’t exist in the area where the snake was found and the snake had subtle color differences that suggested it was from a population outside of Minnesota.  Although I didn’t find their conclusion particularly satisfying, considering how little we know about reptiles and how easy it is to overlook a species that was there all along, I concede I know just a small fraction of what they do about their local wildlife.  We’ll just have to wait and see if more rat snakes show up in the area.  If they do, I hope they’re spared the ice pick.

The first three pictures are of Gray Rat Snakes.  The final picture is of the Minnesota snake itself.

What's a Golf Ball Worth? Caution: Graphic Images

            I was recently forwarded an e-mail with a few graphic images associated with an apparent American Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis, attack.  The text accompanying the pictures suggested a Florida man was reaching down to retrieve a golf ball in a pond when he was attacked by an alligator.  It’s clear from the pictures the man unfortunately lost his arm as a result.

            Considering the millions of people scattered throughout Florida, many of whom snorkel, swim, and fish in the State’s waters, alligator attacks are exceedingly rare and unlikely.  But, it does happen.  So, I couldn’t rule out the possibility the e-mail was true and not another alligator hoax. Alligators don’t typically mess with humans, but we should use caution around any large and predatory animal. 

          The large reptiles have an incredibly wide range of potential prey items, from fish and turtles to raccoons and even deer.  But despite the diversity of alligator prey, a human walking upright on two legs doesn’t look like anything else; consequently, alligators typically flee from or ignore us when we approach the water’s edge. 

            Trouble arises when alligators begin to associate people with food.  This may occur when they become accustomed to being fed by humans.  In these cases, alligators will quickly lose their fear and become dangerous.

            Humans may be at risk from alligators in other circumstances too, such as when they are perceived to be an animal drinking from shore.  Alligators sometimes employ an ambush strategy to capture prey.  This strategy involves lying motionlessly in the water and waiting for an animal, such as a wild pig, to come down to the water to slate their thirst.  It’s easy for me to understand how a man reaching down into the water to find a golf ball could be mistaken for potential prey in these circumstances.

            With this in mind, I researched the story online and quickly found several news stories relating to alligator attacks on golf courses throughout the southeastern United States.  It could be that alligators on golf course ponds are exposed to humans so often (and perhaps occasionally fed by them as well) they gradually lose their fear.  When confronted with a ball in the drink, I suggest golfers take a penalty stroke rather than rooting around in the water in an attempt to improve their score.  That golfer on the hole ahead of you could have just thrown his leftover sandwich to the resident alligator.

            In any case, the pictures I received are associated with a 2007 alligator attack on a South Carolina snorkeler, not a golfer in Florida (or any other State).  Although most associate alligators with Florida, the species can be found nearly throughout South Carolina and even the third of North Carolina closest to the Atlantic coast. This particular alligator, killed after the attack, measured 12 feet (3.7 m) long and 550 pounds (250 kg). I can’t fault the snorkeler in this case; he was apparently minding his own business and had no reason to fear what is typically a harmless species.  I myself have often been found wading through their habitats (but not those of their cousins, the crocodiles). But, we must always be aware of our surroundings and knowledgeable of the risks associated with entering the realm of a large and potentially dangerous animal, even the normally inoffensive American Alligator.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Australian Speed Bumps and Monster Alabama Snakes

    Last week, a distressed Alabama resident contacted the state’s Department of Natural Resources with a plea for help.  It seems this individual’s son had sent her a grainy picture of a giant snake he had encountered while walking along a rural road in the western portion of the state.  The massive beast spanned the length of the road and seemed capable of consuming any man or beast before it.  Concerned for his safety, and for all others in the area, this citizen wanted to know if there were any precautions they should be taking, considering the giant killer snake on the loose.  As proof, the above picture was offered.

The individual at the Department of Natural Resources forwarded the e-mail to a number of biologists for advice, and it made its way to my inbox.  Mark Bailey was the first to get to the bottom of the issue; his Google search revealed several additional versions of the above, grainy image. 

    When we see the original picture, we can immediately determine a prankster has been at work.  The time stamp on the bottom right of the picture clearly states it was taken over five years ago.  In the first grainy version, this time stamp was conveniently missing.

    We can also positively identify the snake in the image as a Green Anaconda, Eunectes murinus.  The massive girth of the snake gives it away.  The Green Anaconda is the heaviest, most massive snake in the world (it’s important to note the Reticulated Python of Southeastern Asia can reach a longer overall length, in the neighborhood of 30 feet).  The olive green color of the snake, as well as the light yellow spots encircled by black rings, are indicative of Green Anacondas.  The lesser known Yellow Anaconda, Eunectes notaeus, do not reach the lengths that Greens do, and as you might expect from their name, they are a different color.

    Green Anacondas naturally range throughout eastern South America; a highly aquatic snake, the species spends much of its time within the water.  They prey on just about anything they can seize and overpower, including birds and large rodents, and even caiman (a type of crocodilian) and potentially jaguars.

    I suppose it could be argued this giant Green Anaconda had been fattened up in captivity, sitting in someone’s basement until it was presented with an opportunity to escape into the wilds of western Alabama.  But, if we look at the vegetation bordering the road, we can see it’s much more typical of a South American jungle (where the Green Anaconda normally lives) than of an Alabama landscape.

    We can confidently conclude that either the entire e-mail was a hoax, or someone was trying to prank their mother, who, not getting the joke, contacted the Alabama Department of Natural Resources for help.

    Further internet searches reveal this photograph has been used in additional pranks.  Past e-mails have been forwarded about with the exclamation this snake was an “Australian Speed Bump” encountered near Gloucester, Australia.  Well…Australia is far, far away from where you can find Anacondas.

    Residents of Alabama (and Australia) can rest easy, knowing the massive snake in the provided photographs is currently thousands of miles away, likely swimming through the vast and wild marshes of Brazil.