Monday, February 25, 2008

Animal of the Week -- February 25, 2008

Morning/Afternoon/Evening all,

As the days lengthen and the sun makes itself felt, thoughts might turn to long summer days whiled away on the banks of a river...especially if a friend of your posts photos of your teenage selves enjoying such a halcyon day on Facebook. But how keen would we have been launch ourselves from the overhanging tree into the tubid stream had we suspected the presence of Channa argus (northern snakehead) or C micropeltus (giant snakehead) in the slow-moving muddy-bottomed river?

Last week, a Lincolnshire angler fishing for pike got a surprise when his sprat attracted the attention of a more exotic fresh water predator 60 cm long and with a mouth crammed with nasty sharp pointy teeth. The fish was later identified as a giant snakehead, a voracious predator from southeast Asia. Capable of growing 2 m long, giant snakeheads are valued as sports fish and food fish, but treated with caution as mothers have been known to attack people to protect their young. Snakeheads breath air rather than extract oxygen from water with their gills as most other fish do, and they can survive several days out of water, and rather terrifyingly these toothy monsters can crawl overland from pool to pool, from one water catchment to another. If you are terrified by the idea of a 2 m giant snakehead crawling into your front room in Lincoln, fear not. These fish need warm water to survive, and the one caught in Lincolnshire had likely been released only very recently by a tropical fish enthusiast whose tanks had been outgrown.

Phew! Right? The more attentive of you will note that this week's animal is also the northern snakehead as well as the giant. The former is similar to the latter in size, habits, ferocity, and ability to crawl over land, but what makes it more terrifying for those of us in temperate latitudes, is that, living in northern China and Russia, these fish can very happily survive in colder climes. Already across the USA, northern snakeheads have invaded lakes and rivers, wreaking destruction to fisheries and wildlife in their wake. One population in Maryland was thought to have become established after a man purchased a pair from a Chinese food shop to make his sick sister a traditional remedy.
Fortunately for us Europeans, trade in these leviathans is banned for both aquarists and enthusiasts of Chinese gastronomic remedies. So we are protected from the northerns for now... but what if that giant snakehead wasn't a recent escapee, it's been a mild winter after all, and what with global warming, perhaps they are breeding in the UK!! Perhaps there's a giant snakehead slithering to your door right now!!!
Thank god I live on the third floor; although I may have to rethink my summer swims in Hampstead ponds. Dammit!


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