24 January 2014
Africa’s Tigerfish was caught jumping out of the water . . . into the air . . . catching a bird . . . in flight . . . and taking it home for dinner.
[video] tigerfish dining alfresco
It’s bad enough that sea creatures can attack us when we go into the water. About 40 years ago, the film, Jaws, scared movie-goers to the point that people stopped going to beaches for fear of being attacked by sharks — but only if the swimmers went in the water! The next film, Jaws II, had promotional trailers warning: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” But at least you were safe on dry land.
Poster: Jaws II
In 1975, the first in a series of SNL sketches took away that last safe place – dry land. The Saturday Night Live writers introduced the world to the “Land Shark” — a predator that could strike on land or sea. In each sketch, a city-dweller would hear a knock at the door and a voice would call out, “telegram,” “plumber,” etc. When the door was opened, in plunged the “Land Shark” (or a giant foam rubber version of the “Land Shark”).
Like a few other fictional villains, the “Land Shark” developed a real life copycat, the “Land Catfish.” Introduced to France’s River Tarn, about 20 years ago, a common species of catfish was starving as its food of choice, crayfish, decreased in numbers. Most species would have the good graces to continue to starve and die out. Not these catfish. Instead, they made a different choice and “learned” to do something no member of their species has ever done before – catch and eat land animals.
Hovering in the water, near flocks of pigeons, these catfish wait for one of the birds to get “too close” to the water. Then, these (sometimes, four-foot long) cats jump out of the water, grab a pigeon and take it home for dinner.
Fisherman, who saw the Land Catfish at work, found it – really creepy. And, so do I. Underwater creatures intentionally jumping out of the water to grab some land animal, drag it back into the water, and eat it? I’ve seen stuff like this in old horror movies!
“Catfish grabs pigeon” [video]
Study of these Land Catfish revealed another upsetting fact. Those catfish that learned to hunt “land prey” developed a taste for land animals. These fish stopped eating their usual crayfish and started eating almost nothing but land animals. Being a land animal, myself, I don’t find any of this comforting . . . at all!
Also, in the last year, we found out about another sea creature that just won’t stay in the sea. A few months ago, an octopus was caught crawling out of the ocean and leisurely shopping for snacks on a California beach. But, unlike the catfish, the octopus didn’t suddenly “choose” to start hunting on land in the last week or so.
Octopus experts say that octopuses have always done this. These creatures jump out of the water onto land all the time. (I don’t know that I wanted to know that.) The only thing that was unusual was that the octopus starring in the video was shopping on the beach during the day. Usually, octopuses crawl out of the sea and go trolling for a meal on land — in the dark of night. Well, that’s the end of my evening strolls on the beach! But, it gets worse. Octopuses even jump onto crab-fishing boats, climb into barrels of crabs (their favorite food), and pig-out.
Just when you thought it was safe to go near the water.
But just as this “year of discovery” of the real Land Sharks was ending, another safe place was invaded by predator fish.
Welcome the “Air Shark.”
A Tigerfish was caught on video jumping out of the water . . . into the air . . . and catching birds in flight. The Tiger is just the sort of fish you don’t want jumping out of the water and catching passing . . . animals. Who knows what else it might catch when it’s up there — water-skiers, parasailers, . . . small aircraft?
Called the “African piranha” the Tigerfish has no winning smile, but it sure has a toothy grin. [image] Hoping for some comfort, I looked up the tigerfish on Wikipedia. After saying that game fisherman call these fish “the African piranhas,” the entry goes on, reassuringly, to say that the two fish aren’t so much alike because the tigerfish and piranha are two different species. (I sigh with relief.)
But, then, the entry goes on to say that tigerfish and piranhas do have just a few things in common. Both have “interlocking, razor-sharp teeth”, “are … extremely aggressive … predators”, and “often hunt in groups.” Oh, don’t let me forget to mention that each member of the tigerfish “pack” weighs about 110 pounds. And another thing, tigerfish have been known to attack humans.
Really makes you want to book that ski vacation at Africa’s Lake Malawi, doesn’t it?
Unlike the Land Catfish, the “Air Shark”/Tigerfish didn’t just choose to start hunting flying birds — yesterday. There have been stories of this fish jumping out the water and grabbing birds in flight since the 1940’s. But, like the octopus’s strolls on the beach, the flight of the tigerfish was never caught on video until this year.
Nico Smit, director of the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, was part of the team that caught the “Air Shark” catching a quick bite. He said that the whole “event,” (meal for the fish, “big sleep” for the bird) happens so fast that it took a while before the researchers were sure what they were seeing.
It didn’t just happen fast. It happened often. They saw 20 “catches” the first day and about 300 during the next two weeks. The “event” was caught on video for the first time by team member Francois Jacobs. The team’s findings were published in the Journal of Fish Biology and Nature.com.
With this report, yet another element of our environment, the air, is threatened by killer fish. I can hear someone say, “Yeah, but unless you’re a bird flying over a lake in Africa you’re safe.” Well, 20 years ago, French pigeons thought they were safe from catfish attacks on the shore of the River Tarn. Then, one fine day, a catfish just “chose” to become a Land Catfish and start jumping out of the water, onto land, to grab and eat the nearest animal. You wouldn’t have wanted to be the next unlucky pigeon that went to get a drink of water from the river!
This “choosing” thing worries me. Now, animals just “choose” to eat completely different things than they’ve been eating for the last few thousand years. Just a couple of weeks after I heard about the Land Catfish, I visited an evening holiday light display at the Missouri Botanical Garden. In the freezing cold, I walked along the dark paths admiring the beautiful lights. I thought back to the Garden, in the summer, with giant koi fish in the large pond surrounded by the Japanese Garden. You can feed these large fish as they gather around the bridges and shoreline to gobble up food pellets.
Gee, I thought, those fish must have rough time under the frozen ice. They go for months with little food. I bet they get really hungry. Looking out into the pitch blackness a few yards off the path, I wondered how close I was to the water. No, I reassured myself. I’m safe. After all . . . koi fish couldn’t be dangerous. These fish look like giant goldfish. The only difference is some have those whisker-looking things. You know, . . . like . . . catfish!? Those clever, predatory, and hungry river-beasts that are scarfing down pigeons in France!
I stuck to the paths farthest from the water.
I didn’t like this new trend toward “choice” with fish deciding to leave the water and eat anything that happened by. But I didn’t think it was a too big a problem until I stumbled across a story about another sea animal. One that jumps out of the water regularly and sails through the air. Everyone says this creature just jumps out of the water and dives back into the water without “eating an in-flight meal.” But, now, I know that sea creatures can just “choose” to change their feeding habits any time.
Jun Yamamoto of Hokkaido University and his team were tracking squid in the ocean east of Tokyo when 20 of these ten-legged creatures flew out of the water for a distance of about 30 meters. They like to fly. They spread out their fins and legs like wings to stay in the air. They’ve even been seen flapping their fins to stay in the air a little longer!
Same story, different day – there were rumors about flying squid for years, but this was the first time they’ve been caught on film. Yamamoto said, “[W]e should no longer consider squid as things that live only in the water.” [!]
Welcome the Air Squid.
Everyone’s worried about the safety of the flying squid. Birds might eat them while they’re flying through the air. Sure, but what happens to the birds when the flying squid decide they’re hungry? “Oh, but these flying squid don’t eat birds or . . . (glup) . . . water-skiers.” Of course, not. Not yet. Not until, like the French Land Catfish, they “choose” to start eating birds, people, . . . small aerial drones. Who knows?
Some will say, “But only small squid fly.” “It’s not like the flying squid were those giant 12 foot long, 330 pound squid that live deep in the ocean.” Correction: Just because they’ve never been caught on video, doesn’t mean giant squid don’t fly. And, even if they’ve never flown before, what make you so sure they won’t choose to fly in the future. Suppose they do. And suppose they choose to flap their fins so fast that they start flying like birds. That’s all we need — giant flying squid trolling the air above the water like a bunch a pterodactyls.
First, there was Jaws with its great white shark.
Don’t go in the water!
Then, the Land Shark “inspired” imitators — the Land Catfish and Land Octopus.
Don’t go near the water!
Finally, the Tigerfish becomes the “Air Shark.”
Don’t fly above the water!
M Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri
& Belleville, Illinois
THURSDAY: “Bye Bye Blackbird” — The Solution to the Bird Problem?
5 September 2013
Prolog: North American bird populations have been in continuous decline for decades. These population losses are shared by all species of birds — both “common” and “endangered.” A National Audubon Society report, “Common Birds in Decline,” documents that there has been as much as an 80% decline in populations of many “secure” species. In spite of endless speculation, the cause of these declines remains a mystery. However, some declines are less mysterious than others. 
Let’s pick up this story in the middle. Just minutes before New Years, on December 31, 2010, birds began to drop dead out of the sky in Beebee, Arkansas. Hours after dark, hundreds of Red Winged Blackbirds suddenly flew out of trees and brush and into the air. No sooner were they airborne, than they tumbled back down to the ground dead. In the morning, thousands of dead birds were found everywhere. A major clean-up operation was required.
No one knew the cause. The poor night vision of this variety of blackbird makes nocturnal flight extremely rare. Some had speculated that fireworks had frightened the birds from their roost, but the county vet was doubtful. Some blamed the frequency of thunderstorms during the previous week, but the last thunderstorm had ended days earlier. Others remembered the death of a flock of ducks that had fallen to the ground dead near Hot Springs in 2001. Those deaths were attributed to a lighting strike or, possibly, hail. But, again, there had been no storm during the last flight of Beebee’s blackbirds. 
During the following week, “Several hundred dead birds” were found near Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky. The birds were “scattered around” several city blocks. “No one could determine the cause of death,” but speculation was that “[i]t could be something in the weather.” 
As the news spread, one woman, living in Marshall County, Kentucky, came forward to report that she had found dozens of dead birds on her property throughout that same Christmas season. 
Then, on January 5, 2011, just days after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas, 500 birds were found dead on a Louisiana highway. The location was only about 300 miles away from Beebee. The dead birds were of three species: blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows. Louisiana officials believed the birds fell to their deaths after “flying into a power line.” However, the reason why 500 birds would engage in this amazingly precise flying maneuver was “still a mystery.” 
Although no one immediately concluded that the weather was to blame, soon a thunderstorm was discussed as a possible cause. Again, however, the last thunderstorm had ended days before these birds’ last flight. With the timing of the thunderstorm so far off the mark, attention turned to a rare weather phenomenon that could suck birds into the air, hold them and, then, drop the birds, in mass, at a particular location.  The 2001 deaths of the Hot Springs ducks made another appearance in media reports to illustrate weather-related bird deaths.
Pathologists all agreed that trauma was the cause of death — a broken breastbone. In other words, the birds died from the impact as they hit the ground. However, the reason why the birds fell out of the sky and hit the ground could not be determined.
Stress was placed on the toxicology report. These blackbirds, starlings, and sparrows hadn’t been poisoned. However, it’s not clear whether pathologists checked for an unusual and expensive poison like DRC-1339, which affects only a small group of bird species. This poison metabolizes quickly in a bird’s system so that insects and animals that scavenge the dead bird would not be affected. DRC-1339 is marketed under the commercial name that says it all: Starlicide. 
After all those stories about the “mysterious” decline in North American bird populations, it turns out that at least one factor is about as mysterious as the decline in insect populations after a visit by the exterminator.
This story ends in Yankton Riverside Park in the City of Yankton, South Dakota, on the morning of January 18, 2011 — just 18 days after the first mass death in Beebee, Arkansas. Residents were puzzled and alarmed to find hundreds of dead birds in the park. The event received substantial publicity and a police investigation began. 
Like the reports of other bird die-offs over the past weeks, this latest mass death remained unexplained. Accounts of the mysterious deaths were repeated by mystified naturalists. Environmentalists were sure that some enjoyable aspect of modern life was responsible and, of course, should be stopped. Those with an apocalyptic streak even worried that these mass bird deaths were a sign of the end of world.
Then, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted the Yankton Police. The USDA representative explained that the Department of Agriculture had poisoned the birds at a location south of Yankton — adding, pleasantly, that they were surprised the birds made it as far north as Yankton before dying. 
This story begins with a Nebraska farmer. We’ll call him Farmer Jones. He complained to the USDA that starlings were defecating in his feed meal. The USDA investigated and concluded that the birds were causing “agricultural damage.” Also, feed meal contaminated with bird poop was “a threat to human health.”
This confronted the USDA with a difficult decision. They had to find the most humane, economical, and least disruptive means of dealing with the problem. On the one hand, they could provide Farmer Jones with a cover for his feed meal. On the other hand, they could obtain a deadly poison and begin a program of mass bird extermination. Weighing all the factors, it was apparent that mass bird extermination was the only possible solution.
Quickly consulting their staff experts, the USDA obtained large quantities of DRC-1339, a deadly poison called Starlicide, and began the implementation of their new program. Thousands of birds were allowed to feed on the poison and die. But the USDA felt this should be the start of something really big. They made it so.
With amazing efficiency, and certainly great expense, the USDA had fatally poisoned over 4 million birds by the time of the Yankton Park die-off. This was no idle boast. These numbers were, and are, documented on the USDA website. Better yet, the USDA has a name for the program. It’s called “Bye Bye Blackbird.” 
This program of systematic poisoning is costing taxpayers a lot of money and bird lovers a lot of grief. Black birds, starlings, farmers, and feed meal have been living together since — about forever. Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more merciful to buy Farmer Jones a cover for his feed meal?
Epilog: The residents of Beebee, Arkansas didn’t hold a memorial on the first anniversary of the mass bird deaths of 2010. They didn’t need to be reminded because it happened again.
On December 31, 2011, Beebee’s police dispatcher began to receive multiple calls reporting, that “blackbirds [were] falling again and that [people] found blackbirds on the streets where they live or at [their] churches,” A spokesperson for Animal Control reported that there were “birds falling down on the street and people dodging and missing them.” A Police spokesperson later explained that this second die-off wasn’t as bad as the previous year “when birds covered the streets.” At least this year, the clean-up would be easier because the dead birds were scattered over a smaller area.
Initial suspicion, again, fell on fireworks with news reports confirming that fireworks had caused a similar event the previous year. Even an unnamed expert expressed the opinion that the many blackbirds flew into the air and crashed down to their deaths because they were scared by fireworks. 
However, the fireworks explanation faded away as later news reports refocused on the weather. Although there had been no thunderstorms at the time of this latest death flight, there had been thunderstorms days earlier. And, of course, the reporters remembered those ducks that were struck by lightening in Hot Springs in 2001.
Other “Thursdays” about Animals: