Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I Caught a Fish With a Snake Inside, is it Safe to Eat? Turning Citizen Science into Publications.

While filleting a bass I found a dead snake inside, when the fish was caught it was a healthy fighting fish. My question is: Is it safe to eat the fish?

Thanks,


Ron

    You better believe that this e-mail caught my attention. It reminded me of this letter about whether it was safe to eat a fish that had been bitten by a Cottonmouth. In that case, I probably would not eat the fish. But, I did not even know if the snake that Ron found was venomous. If it was not venomous, there would definitely be no problem eating the fish. But if it was, well...better safe than sorry.

    I really wanted to know what species of snake we were dealing with. So, I e-mailed Ron hoping he might have thought to take a picture of the swallowed serpent. Success.


    After seeing the picture, I was pretty sure that this was a baby Southern Watersnake (Nerodia fasciata). But, it can be hard for me to distinguish between all the different species of baby watersnakes, so I had to ask John Jensen to confirm it. More success.

    So now I knew that the fish was safe to eat but gears were turning in my head. Even in 2015 there is so much that we do not know about snakes and other reptiles. Sometimes it is isolated observations like these that reveal new predator and prey relationships.

    I looked through my relevant references books (Snakes of the United States and Canada as well as North American Watersnakes: A Natural History) and was floored by what I learned. Southern Watersnakes are one of the most commonly observed snakes in the southeastern United States; you can find them in just about any body of water. Yet despite their habitat and abundance, no fish had ever been documented as eating one before

    Does this mean that it was unusual for a fish to eat a watersnake? Probably not, given that there are lots of baby watersnakes and lots of big predatory fish. Rather, it reminded me how much we have to learn about the wildlife all around us.

    At this point I was thinking that if I could figure out the species of the fish that ate the Southern Watersnake and was then caught by Ron, this could all get turned into a natural history note that would be published in a scientific journal (Herpetological Review). This note would literally be the first documented proof of a fish eating a Southern Watersnake and would change what we know about Southern Watersnakes! Fortunately, Ron came through again and provided another picture of his catch.

    From his picture it was clear that he had caught a bunch of Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides). After Ron's son Travis provided some additional details, we had everything we needed to put a draft manuscript together.  And, today we found out that our note was accepted for publication!

    We have so much more to learn about the natural world. Take a cue from Ron and Travis and make sure to document cool stuff you find! Citizen science for the win!

    This actually is not the first time something like this happened. A few months ago I was on Twitter and noticed wildlife photographer Trey Neal talking about a Roadrunner he had photographed preying on a baby Cottonmouth.




    Now, Roadrunners are kind of famous for eating snakes, including venomous species like rattlesnakes, but this seemed unusual to me. Roadrunners are generally a species of the western United States, and Cottonmouths are generally a species of the eastern United States, with their ranges overlapping in Texas. Because there is only a relatively small area of the world where these two species could meet and we know so little about natural history in any case, I knew there was a good chance this had never been documented before. After a visit to my reference books and a brief check to see if anything had been published recently, I confirmed that nobody had ever seen a Greater Roadrunner eating a Cottonmouth (at least nobody had published about it). So, Trey and I worked together to write something up, and, like above, we were able to publish it.

    Even the snake identification challenges you see on this blog sometimes reveal something new. You see this Corn Snake from a couple of weeks ago? Well, thanks to the awesome Atlas of Reptiles in Tennessee, I was able to quickly figure out that the species had never been documented in Loudon County, Tennessee before. I'm working with Barbara to turn that into a note too.

    The natural history of an animal includes information about where they live, when they reproduce, what they eat, stuff like that. I think a lot of people assume we already know all this. This is far from the truth, as the examples above show (hundreds of these types of notes are published each year). Similarly, I think a lot of people assume there are a lot of folks out there that know all about natural history. Unfortunately, that is not quite true either. Universities around the country are de-emphasizing the importance of natural history, both in their selection of who to hire as professors and in the courses they offer to students. This might be because it is hard to find funding to do natural history research. Yet, most of the questions people ask me about reptiles and amphibians relate to their natural history. So there is a disconnect there. Much of the public is interested in natural history, but this is not a priority of public universities or of governmental funding agencies. Too bad.


R. Arbaugh, T. Arbaugh., & D. A. Steen (2015). Nerodia fasciata (Southern Watersnake). Predation. Herpetological Review, In press.

T. Neal, & D. A. Steen (2015). Agkistrodon piscivorus (Cottonmouth). Predation. Herpetological Review, In press.

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