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Today (March 3rd) is World Wildlife Day! Initially I was going to write about a charismatic mammalian species like the magnificent Siberian tiger or the mountain tapir, but then it occurred to me that I should write about a predator which is larger than the tiger and ranges farther than the tapir, yet which humankind regards with contempt (if we think about it at all). Behold the magnificent Atlantic halibut, the largest of the flatfish.

The Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) is a mighty predator of the North Atlantic. They range from Iceland and Greenland down to the Bay of Biscay and Virginia. These fish are capable of reaching a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft) and can weigh more than 320 kg (710 lb). Like other flatfish, Atlantic halibut are lurking benthic predators which snap up unwary prey animal, however, unlike many of the other flounder species (which sometimes swim awkwardly due to asymmetric bodies), Atlantic halibut are strong swimmers capable of lengthy migrations and real speed. Just look at how different their tail is from other flatfish. Although they are not absolute apex predator of their habitat (which is also inhabited by orcas, sperm whales, and great white sharks), halibut prey on some pretty substantial animals such as cod, haddock, herring, pogge, lobsters, large crabs, and various cephalopods.

Atlantic halibut larva (greatly magnified)

Although it rarely happens today, in our world of rampant overfishing, Atlantic halibut can live to be more than half a century in age. When they spawn, the female fish lay up to 4 million eggs (!) which hatch after 16 days. The tiny larvae (above) are almost transparent and they spend about a year among the zooplankton, gorging on microscopic algae, eggs, and tiny invertebrates until they are large enough to undergo the strange metamorphose into adulthood. Once they attain sufficient age and size, one of their eyes migrates across their skull to the other side of their head (they are right-facing flounder, by the way) and the back/bottom side of the fish becomes white and pale. Young halibuts are pale gray and brown with little pebble-like spots, but as they age they turn into a uniform sable color (on the upward facing part of their body, I mean). They are among the largest teleosts–although sunfish can grow much larger.

As you can see, Atlantic halibut are impressive fish. Yet, when I was growing up they were mostly known as the source of discount fish sticks or as something to fry when the cod was all out. Because they are commercially valuable (and delicious), they have been overfished to such a degree that they were added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 1996. Commercial fishermen also used to catch these halibut with bottom trawls–an ecologically devastating method of fishing which ravages the bottom of the ocean and creates far more bycatch (“accidental bystander fish” which are thrown back into the ocean dead) than actual catch. Ecologists have compared bottom trawling to dyamiting a forest to hunt squirrels.

Regular readers know that I religiously draw flatfish after flatfish (here, check out my Instagram profile and see for yourself). I get the feeling that it greatly perplexes most people (even though I have previously tried to explain) and, even now, I suspect that there are readers who wonder why I am featuring a “food fish” for World Wildlife Day rather than a tiger, falcon, or killer whale or something. For one thing, I think there are many things which are legitimately beautiful, special, and amazing about flounder. Their hunting, and camouflage abilities impress me as much as their non-bilateral symmetry (which is unique in the vertebrate world). The flounders are taxonomically much more diverse and widespread than say, primates. They are also a great symbol of the living oceans–a sort of avatar of the primordial depths which we never really know (no matter how many frogmen, minisubs, and trawlers we send down there). Of course they are also our victims–and we kill them literally by the boatload to make money and feed and amuse ourselves.

Flounder also have a tragicomic mien which I find deeply compelling: they are both the comedy and the tragedy mask at the same time. Their sad, hungry grimace and weirdly knowing google eyes perfectly encapsulate the ambiguities of being alive (there is a reason that use of the word “floundering” leaped off of the charts during our annus horribilis in 2020). But in the end, it strikes me that life itself is floundering as humans desperately use up more and more of the planet’s resources. As much as I would love to live in a giant money shower like Wylan or Ed Hardy, somehow killer whales and tigers do not scream “victim” the same way that flounders do…and it is impossible not to conclude that that is exactly what the natural world is screaming right now.

Apollo and the Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021) ink on paper

One of the accounts which I follow on Instagram is “newyorkcitywild” which showcases the flora & fauna (& fungi) of New York City.  While I expected it would be filled with pigeons, trees of heaven (gah!), and cockroaches (and maybe the occasional black wasp with fluorescent orange feelers), it is actually filled with an astonishing proliferation of incredibly beautiful plants and animals like owls, frogs, beaver, snapping turtles, garter snakes, and flowers of every color of the rainbow.  The city is teeming with wildlife that finds space in the parks and abandoned corners.  Imagine what we could do if we tweaked the designs for the future just a little bit!

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However, even though the photos have changed some of my stereotypes about the urban ecosystem,  when I looked at this account the other day, I assumed that the creator had fled the city on a yacht.  The pictures were most certainly not of chimney swifts, or treefrogs, or damselflies, but instead featured 30,000 kilogram (35 ton) humpback whales gulping down entire schools of menhaden.  I couldn’t believe that this was happening just beyond Sheepshead Bay until I recognized the unmistakable city skyline behind one of the giants. I have (very gradually) come to terms with the fact that I live near an ocean, but it is still hard to recognize that it is a working ocean which connects to real ocean things and isn’t just filled with plastic garbage and dodgy Panamanian-flagged super freighters.

I was enormously moved to see that our enormous friends are so near…that I share a home with them in terms which are local rather than planetary, but then, immediately, I was terrified for the poor whales. Humans are BAD neighbors.  Most of the amazing wild animals I have seen in the city have been dead–either smashed by psychotic motorists (whose greatest delight is killing all living things with their evil benzene death chariots), or concussed to death from flying into windows, or poisoned by pesticide or weird chemicals.  And, sure enough, yesterday’s Gothamist featured a harrowing tale of a trapped humpback whale slowly and agonizingly fighting to breathe despite being caught in some nightmarish tangle of cables, fishing lines, and sinister plastic garbage in the Ambrose Channel just off the city coast.  You should read the article [spoiler alert: it has a happy ending when the whale was freed after a multi-day struggle by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response team from the Center for Coastal Studies].  Humankind’s engagement with the greater world ecosystem is improving..in ways. Yet the larger narrative is still one of devastation, peril, and death.

Tomorrow’s New York City could be filled with whales (figuratively or literally...since we live in a world of global warming and a storm is coming) or they could be gone from everywhere.  We humans are the architects of the city and the makers of the deadly cast off fishing nets.  We could make and do things differently.  But can we?

 

Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus)

Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus)

This amazing looking fish is a gafftopsail catfish (Bagre marinus). It is an Atlantic Ocean catfish which lives in coastal waters off of North America from the Caribbean up through the Gulf of Mexico north to the mouth of the Hudson. As you might guess from its intimidating Fu Manchu mustache and barbed flavor savor, the gafftopsail catfish is a formidable predator which eats crustaceans and smaller fish. The fish has a sinister forked tail, a wavelike hump, and a jaunty dorsal spine looks like a sail (and gives the fish its common name). Additionally like most saltwater catfish, the gafftopsail catfish has several venomous, serrated spines.

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The largest gafftopsail catfish ever caught weighed an impressive 4.5 kg (10 pounds), but generally the fish are much smaller. They usually measure about 43 cm (17 inches) in length. Male gafftopsail catfish are solicitous fathers. When the female lays her eggs, the male fertilizes them and collects them in his mouth. He carefully protects the eggs until they have hatched, and thereafter his young take shelter from predators inside his mouth until they are old enough to set out on their own.

Bagre_marinus

Ferrebeekeeper has written a lot about how long trees can live.  Individual yew trees can survive for thousands of years, bristlecone pines can live even longer, and clonal entities like Pando, a super-colony of quaking aspen, can potentially live for hundreds of thousands of years.  Likewise colonial animals (coral, gorgonians, tubeworms, and so forth) tend to live the longest—although the constituent individuals come and go.  Yet colonial animals frustrate our selfish human perception of the world.  When we talk about an organism we mean an individual, and in this category, the world’s longest living animal comes as a surprise!

Arctica islandica

As you read this, somewhere, off the coast of Greenland or Virginia there is a smug little clam which was alive when Oliver Cromwell was in diapers and before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter. Arctica islandica, the “Ocean Quahog” or “Black Clam,” is believed to live for more than 400 years!  The little bivalve laughs at nations, dynasties, and vampires as short-lived.

The venerable mollusks do not live flashy or extravagant lives. They live under a light drift of substrate on Atlantic coastal shelves at a depth of 25 to 100 meters (75 to 300 feet) although they have been found much deeper.  The species is very successful and ranges from coastal Portugal up around Iceland down to the Carolinas.  The little clams feed on plankton suspended in the water and they only grow to about 12 cm (5 inches) in diameter.  Amazingly these Methuselah mollusks are harvested by dredge for the dinner table, so if, like me, you love spaghetti alle vongole, you might have inadvertently eaten something that lived longer than the United States has been around!

James Fort at Jamestown ca. 1610 (to give some perspective on how long 400 years is)

The secret behind the small bivalve’s longevity is unclear.  Some scientists have speculated that antioxidant enzyme activities and the avoidance of waste accumulation are partially responsible for the clam’s age but the British Society for Research on Aging somewhat dryly remarks that, “Despite interest in this clam’s longevity and the measurement of growth increment series, little research into how this species has apparently managed to defy the onset of the ageing processes has been conducted.”

This shines a poor light on our priorities. Instead of grasping the molecular secrets of the longest living animals on Earth, the people who allocate resources to various things have decided to buy learjets and build a bunch of hokey Mcmansions for themselves.   Argh! Maybe the clams’ sense of frugal austerity is what gives them such staying power.

Stauroteuthis syrtensis (photo by David Shale and Claire Nouvian)

One of the reasons I chose mollusks as a topic is to illustrate how diverse life on our own planet is. The mollusks are an insanely heterogeneous phylum of creatures and they have been successful around the globe for the last 540 million years (at least). Even today in the ultracompetitive Holocene world, mollusks thrive just about everywhere.  To illustrate this point I am showcasing the enigmatic deep water octopus Stauroteuthis, of which two species are currently known.  These octopuses are only found more than 700 meters underwater in the Atlantic Ocean.  Although they are most common around 2 kilometers beneath the surface the creatures have been spotted as far as 4 kilometers down.  The Stauroteuthids are small benthopelagic octopuses (they are free-swimming but live in close proximity to the ocean floor).

(photo by David Shale)

The Tree of Life Web Project gives us the following overview of Stauroteuthid morphology:

Stauroteuthids are peculiar, gelatinous cirrates with a mantle opening that forms a complete tube around the funnel. They also have peculiar gills and internal shells and a large web that is nearly equally developed between all arms. When observed from submersibles, this octopod commonly has its arms and web formed into a bell-shape (bell-shape posture). Sometimes when the octopod is disturbed, it will inflate the web and draw the arms together at their tips to form a “balloon” with the arms and web (balloon posture). These postures are thought to be involved in feeding and/or defense.

That is nearly all we know about them—it is difficult to study creatures which live 2 kilometers underwater. However I have left out the most exciting fact: the Stauroteuthids are bioluminescent.  Certain muscle cells around the suckers have been replaced with photophores which allow the Stauroteuthid octopuses to light up their eight legs like plane runways.  The purpose of this luminescence is unknown but it is believed to be for predatory purposes (the lights are thought to direct prey to the octopus’ beak). Possibly the lights also help the octopuses to find and communicate with mates.

Bioluminescent Suckers (photo by ORCA)


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