14. Jun, 2020

Several species of fish have the habit of making occasional leaps out of the water, which is also known as breaching. They may do so for different reasons. The leap could be part of their natural locomotion:  for example to save energy or just for fun like with the bottlenose dolphin. Spinner dolphins seem to enjoy their ability to spin multiple times in one jump. A jump could also reflect an attempt to catch a prey on the surface. A seal swimming on the surface may trigger a breach of the great white shark, and a fly above the surface of a river could tempt a trout to leap out of the water to snatch it. Other breaches reflect an attempt to escape a predator or noise of a boat propeller leading, for example,  to mass jumping of Asian carps in the  USA. These carps multiplied spectacularly after they escaped from a fish farm, outnumbering the local fish species. One fish jumping can set off a chain reaction and spook other fish — as seen in footage a river full jumping Asian carps in the Illinois River.  Spectacular are the jumps of salmons heading upstream to spawn that can leap up more than three meters to scale a waterfall. Some bony fishes such as mudskippers  (Periopthalmus) and amphibious blennies (Alticus) may spend more than 50% of their lives out of water. Anatomical (body) and behavioral adaptations let them move better on land and water. When threatened, these species typically produce prone jumps, using their fins to move around in skips. They may even flip their strong body to jump up to 2 feet (60 cm) into the air.

Sofar some examples of the leaping fish, but the flying fish are the ‘real’ flyers. They belong to the family Exocoetidae in the bony fish order of  Atheriniformes and closely related to the needlefish, halfbeaks, and sauries. Flying fish are limited to surface waters warmer than 20–23 °C, and contain about 64 species,  grouped in seven to nine genera. While they cannot fly in the same way a bird does, flying fish can make powerful, self-propelled leaps out of the water where their long wing-like fins enable gliding for considerable distances above the water's surface. Spotting a group of flying fish is a bit like seeing jumping dolphins. It is always fun to see a group turning up next to your boat and then performing its extended flight over the surface. In the open Oceans, flying fish are sometimes ending up on the decks of sailing boats or on larger cargo ships when the weather is rough. There are also stories of castaways surviving by eating flying fish that fell on their boat and swearing afterward never to eat sashimi for a long time.

Flying fish mainly fly to escape from predators, particularly dolphin-fishes (Coryphaena hippurus). Adult flying fish are of variable size (150–500 mm maximum length) and may be broadly divided into two categories: ‘two-wingers’ (e.g. Fodiator, Exocoetus, Parexocoetus) in which the enlarged pectoral fins make up most of the lifting surfaces, and ‘four-wingers’ (e.g.Cypsilurus, Hirundichthys) in which both pectoral and pelvic fins are hypertrophied. The pectoral fins are controlled by two groups of muscles, the lateral muscles that extend the wings, and the medial muscles that furl them. Both groups appear from external appearances to be red (aerobic) muscles (see the  Springer article for more details)

Beyond their useful pectoral fins, all have unevenly forked tails, with the lower lobe longer than the upper lobe. When the lower lobe touches a flat water surface it often draws a sinusoidal track. The process of taking flight, or gliding, begins by gaining great velocity underwater. After it has jumped out of the water produced by the rapid movement and vibration of the tail, they use their large pectoral fins almost as wings.  The pectoral fins then expand and stiffen like the wigs of a glider while in the air before the fish reenters the water. A flying fish can remain airborne for at least 40 seconds and can reach a top speed of at least 40 MPH (64 km/h). With a good wind however they might even fly as far as hundreds of meters.  When gliding, flying fish barely skim over the surface of the water. When the fish returns in the water it may become airborne again by violent flapping and extra thrust of its forked tail. As said, their flying action is meant to escape from predators (such as fish-eating bonitos, albacores, dorados, or the dolphin fish).  A Zodiac running across a group flying fish swimming close to the surface may also provoke a jump out of the water, as I witnessed several times on the Mediterranean.  In some Oceans airborne flying fish are confronted with another danger from the sky above: seagulls and frigatebirds looking for a tasty snack. Here they are literally caught between the ‘devil and  the deep blue sea


23. May, 2020

There are three species of bluefin tunas: the Atlantic (Thunnus Thynnus the largest and most endangered), Pacific (T. orientalis), and Southern (T. maccoyi).  More distant relatives in the genus Thunnus are the bigeye tuna (T. obesus) and the yellowfin tuna (T. albacares).

The Atlantic bluefin tuna Thunnus Thynnus is the largest tuna and the largest species in the mackerel family that can live for 40 years.  It is native to both the western and eastern Atlantic. One spawning ground exists in the western Mediterranean, particularly in the area of the Balearic islands. Their other important spawning ground is the Gulf of Mexico.

Bluefins are tremendous predators, already seeking out schools of fish like herring, mackerel, and even eels just after birth. With their superb vision they hunt by sight, while their torpedo-shaped body and retractable fins made for speed allow them to reach almost  80 km per hour. Their specialized blood vessel system (called a countercurrent exchanger) serves to maintain a body temperature that is higher than the surrounding. Which facilitates movements such as rapid and powerful turnings of the body. To keep the blood oxygenated they swim constantly with their mouth open.

Atlantic bluefin tuna has been hunted down massively since it became the most highly prized fish used in Japanese raw fish dishes like sushi and sashimi.  In the restaurants in southern Spain (e.g. in the tuna paradise Barbate) the Atún Rojo is also a local delicacy. A small tin of tuna costs around 20 Euro. Driven by such high prices, fishermen have developed more refined techniques like anchored nets to catch tuna, with the fish disappearing as a result. Although tuna do provide food and livelihoods for people, they are more than just seafood. Tuna is a top predator in the marine food chain, maintaining a balance in the ocean environment

About 80% of the caught Atlantic and Pacific bluefin tunas are consumed in Japan, where it is considered as an ultimate delicacy. Most catches of the Atlantic bluefin tuna are taken from the Mediterranean Sea which is the most important bluefin tuna fishery in the world. 15 years ago the future for tunas looked really bad, reaching a low point in 2012.   A report of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) concluded that only 10% remained of the population that existed 50 years ago. The catch quota was then brought back in 2008 from 26.750 tons to 12.900 tons worldwide for a  4 year period, restricting the catch to species larger than 30 kilos. 

However illegal catch continued in the waters of Southern Spain. And when the tuna populations started to grow again, the ICCAT decided, under pressure from member countries such as Japan, France, and Italy,  to increase the catch quota of bluefin tuna from 24,000 tons annually to 36,000 tons annually. Scientists and conservationists fear that increasing the catch limit will set back the bluefin recovery effort enacted in 2008 after stocks of the prized sushi fish have badly overexploited in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.








22. Mar, 2020

The narwhals (Monodon Monoceros) live year-round in the Arctic waters around Greenland, Canada, and Russia.  They have been harvested for hundreds of years by Inuit people in northern Canada and Greenland for meat and ivory, and a regulated hunt continues. It is one of two living species of whale in the family  Monodontidae, along with the beluga whale. Narwhals can live up to 50 years and grow to 6 m long. Their pigmentation is a mottled pattern, with blackish-brown markings over a white background. They are darkest when born and become whiter with age. During the winter, narwhals make some of the deepest dives recorded for a marine mammal, diving to at least 800 meters, several times per day, with some dives reaching 1,500 meters.

Normally, the canine tooth only on the left side of the upper jaw becomes a tusk. The tusk is actually an enlarged spiraled ivory tooth with sensory capability (somewhat like a feeler) and up to 10 million nerve endings inside, that can grow as long at 10 feet. Rarely, males develop two tusks. Only about 15 percent of females grow a smaller tusk.

What is the function of the strange rapier-like tusk of the male narwhal: is it a weapon or rather a signal?  The general scientific consensus is that the narwhal tusk is not directly necessary for survival but serves as a sexual trait, much like the manes of a lion, or the feathers of a peacock  Perhaps the sensors in the tusk have also a communicative function, the reason why some males have been seen ‘tusking’:  that is crossing the tusks like rapiers in a simulated fight. Based on the disproportional growth and large variation in male tusk length biologist Zackary Graham from Arizona and colleagues found morphological evidence that narwhal tusks are indeed sexually selected during male-male contests. Parts of the body that are sexually selected are often disproportionally larger. The variation is tusk size among male narwhals is indeed much larger (between 45-250 cm) than the tail (or fluke, between 45-90 cm). Large tusks thus benefit male narwhals in sexual acts, probably signaling  ’I am bigger than you'', and avoid potentially dangerous fights by impressing rivals (see insert). Source:  Royal Society Biology Letters,  March 2020



20. Feb, 2020

The green sea turtle  (Chelonia mydas)  is listed as endangered by the IUCN and CITES and is protected from exploitation in most countries where the species nests. Factors threatening its existence are direct harvesting for the consumption of its flesh, boat strikes, egg poaching, and habitat destruction, such as the sandy beaches that form their egg nesting sites. Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles a year are accidentally caught in shrimp trawl nets, on longline hooks, and in fishing gillnets. The dramatic increase of tourism on the Carribean island also had a negative impact on the turtle populations. 

Turtles may swim more than 2,600 kilometers to reach their spawning grounds, and then return to the beaches on which they were born to lay their own eggs. The green turtle is found on both the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines and can reach a weight of up to a hundred and eighty kilograms. The extensive, shallow continental shelf of eastern Nicaragua is home to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of green turtles that forage on the abundant seagrass that grows there. The turtles help to improve the health and growth of the seagrass beds. Although trade in turtles is prohibited, Nicaraguan law still allows the subsistence use of green turtles, and local demands from coastal Indian inhabitants have supplanted the historical export demand. Here the demand for its meat is estimated to involve approximately eleven thousand killings each year. Hunting these turtles is affecting the turtle populations, as the green turtle takes between twenty to fifty years to reach sexual maturity (they may live on to 80 years) and without sexually mature adults, the numbers of these turtles could decline rapidly.


13. Feb, 2020

The name porpoise is a strange assembly of fish and swine. It’s stocky body and bulbous head with a small blunt snout was probably why the species was called porcopiscus in Latin which is a compound of porcus (pig) and piscis (fish). The species' taxonomic name, Phocoena, is derived from the Greek phōkaina, which in turn comes from φώκη (phōkē) or seal. Suggesting that the ancients might have mistaken the porpoise for a seal.

Left: Harbor porpoise. Picture  by F.Graner

Porpoises are small toothed whales (Odontoceti) that are closely related to oceanic dolphins. The porpoise, however, has always remained more mysterious than its relative the dolphin. Perhaps because they are less wide-spread over the world than the dolphins, and are also not easily spotted in the open sea.  Porpoises rarely jump out of the water like dolphins and even then you are not likely to see more than the top part of its back with its small triangular dorsal fin when surfacing for a breath of air. Porpoises also have a compact body shape with a stiff neck while the dolphins have a  long beak and flexible head.

Seven extant species of porpoises The porpoises belong to the order of the toothed whales,  consisting of around 70 species. Odontocetes feed largely on fish and squid, not rely on their sense of sight, but rather on their sonar to hunt prey. They echolocate by creating a series of clicks emitted at various frequencies. There are now only seven extant species of porpoises that fall in the family of Phocoenidae. They are in respective order:

  • Genus Phocoena (four species): the harbor porpoise, vaquita, spectacled porpoise, and Burmeister’s porpoise
  • Genus Neophocaena (two  species): the finless porpoise and  narrow-ridged finless porpoise
  • Genus Phocoenoides (one species),  the Dall’s porpoise

As said, porpoises are not widespread, with some species specializing near the polar regions, usually near the coast. The most frequent species, the harbor porpoise  (Phocoena phocoena)  lives in the shallow, relatively cold northern coastal seas. One believes that there were once huge populations living in these waters, when their favorite food, the anchovies, was still abundant. The reason why the species was called harbor porpoises was that they probably often followed the fishing boats into the harbors. Because it is most commonly found in bays, estuaries, harbors, and fjords the species is particularly vulnerable to gillnets and fishing traps, pollution, and other types of human disturbance, such as underwater noise.

In past decades, pollution, particularly PCBs, caused a sharp decline in the population of harbor porpoises along all of the coastal areas of the southern North Sea. According to a recent study an increasing number of stranded harbor porpoises have been found in the last three decades on the beaches of Belgium and Holland: an amount of 16.000, mostly young male species*.

 Porpoises were also highly affected by bycatch. Many porpoises, mainly the vaquita, are subject to great mortality due to gillnetting. The vaquita is a species of porpoise endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California that is on the brink of extinction. The Dall's porpoise from the northern Pacific is still extensively harvested for meat in Japan. Stranded porpoises often got killed by drowning after they became entangled in fishing nets. The ‘pinger'',  a loudspeaker tied to a floating buoy,  is used by fishermen to keep the harbor porpoises away from their boats. But these devices could also serve to tell the porpoise that ’dinner is ready’, so rather attracting the animals than keeping them at a distance.  Along the northern Dutch coast porpoises have been found with bites resembling the tooth of the grey seals, which often show up in the North Sea. Suggesting that adult grey seals are true predators, even preying on porpoises. The good news is that in the open North Sea the porpoises now seem to be back again, feeding mostly on herring, sprat and mackerel, and even smaller species like gobies. The estimate is that there are presently living around  250.000 species living in the North Sea, making them the most common cetacean in these waters.