You’d think that sharks and rays would be pretty well known along our coast. Did you know that two Hammerhead Sharks have been found off Vancouver Island? Even a Tiger Shark has strayed north to Alaska. Did it swim along the BC coast, or did it take a more direct route from Hawai’i? We’ll never know. However, in 2016 a new shark was added to our fish fauna – the Pacific Angel Shark (Squatina californica) – based on a clear photograph by Mark Cantwell and his detailed description of the dive location.
We have known since 1931 that Angel Sharks ranged north to Seattle, and there is a single record from Alaska. The specimen label for this 35 cm Alaskan female had been lost (Evermann and Goldsborough 1907) and we cannot pin down its collection location with certainty. Until now, we had no Angel Shark records for British Columbia – but it was only a matter of time.
On the 30th of April, 2016, a single adult Angel Shark was sighted by a diver off Clover Point right here in Victoria. The shark’s gender cannot be determined from the photograph since claspers, if present, are not visible. The Angel Shark was found in about 12 meters of water, about 30 meters off the point. The diver estimated the shark’s length at about 1.1 to 1.2 meters in length. The specimen was not collected, but it would have made a fantastic museum specimen.
King and Surry (2016) published the discovery of this shark in BC in a recent issue of the Canadian Field-Naturalist. While this now is not breaking news – in fact it is a year late – people may still want the primary reference to our latest elasmobranch.
PDFs are available here [as a new paper, King and Surry (2016) is available by subscription to The Canadian Field-Naturalist or by contacting the primary author]:
Belted Kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) usually take fishes – why else would they be called kingfishers. They sometimes take crustaceans and frogs, and I’d be shocked if they turn their beaks up at big juicy insects. However, mammal predation is quite a dietary shift. Apparently no one explained the meaning of “fisher” to a kingfisher in the southwestern Yukon.
A paper came out in a recent issue of the Canadian Field-Naturalist (see Jung 2016) detailing the capture of a Western Water Shrew (Sorex navigator) by a Belted Kingfisher. That would make a decent meal and a real energetic boost for the Kingfisher. Jung (2016) mentioned that Belted Kingfishers have been known to take Eastern Water Shrews (Sorex albibarbis), and he (Jung 2013) also reported on a kingfisher trying to subdue a Spotted Bat (Euderma maculatum).
Imagine if kingfishers changed tactics to regularly prey on other small animals? Their ecology could converge on that of butcher birds (shrikes). What’s next? Lizards and snakes?(Yes, shrikes impale their prey on thorns (or barbed wire) to age a bit).
Keep your eyes on the sky. And as for that specific Water Shrew, all you can say is: “Hair today, gone tomorrow.”
PDFs are available here:
Was this an odd title? Actually I think the song went,
“On top of spaghetti… all covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meat ball… When somebody sneezed.
It rolled off the table… and onto the floor.
And then my poor meat ball… rolled out of the door.
Wow that was a dredged from deep cephalic crevices…
Anyway, I got a tip from Purnima Govindarajulu, my herpetological counterpart in the Ministry of Environment that she’d seen a European Wall Lizard on Mount Tolmie here in southern Saanich. Given how fast and far Wall Lizards are spreading, it was only a matter of time before they colonized this rock. This pocket of lizards will form another expanding sub-population – pretty-much midway between the single lizard I saw at the University of Victoria and the lizards near Doncaster School.
This morning (April 27th) was nice and sunny, and I hiked up to the summit after dropping my daughter at daycare. What did I find first? A Northern Alligator Lizard. That made me very happy – I don’t see those everyday and this lizard was more than patient with the iphone-wielding twit who wanted its picture.
Then less than 2 meters away were the Wall Lizards – five of them. A meter or so along the road, another Wall Lizard. Up along the southeast corner of the reservoir – another large male Wall Lizard.
Yep, looks like they have found a solid toe-hold in this region. Cedar Hill X Road may make a decent barrier to northward dispersal (not that Wall Lizards aren’t north of there anyway) – but they will easily spread southeast and southwest into gardens adjacent to the park. Note the small scales and green colour on this Wall Lizard’s back, compared with the larger coppery scales on the Alligator Lizard (above).
Keep your eyes on rock gardens, rock walls, woody debris, and any bedrock with decent cracks for shelter. The photo below shows just how slender the Wall Lizards are – this one with an intact tail is the largest lizard I have caught to date (21.2 cm total length). After checking the RBCM’s herps database, I see that the only months where I haven’t caught Wall Lizards are January and February – too bad that this spring was consistently cold and wet. I have missed my chance to get a full year’s worth of lizards in 2017.
Yesterday I worked with Chris O’Connor from our Learning Department – we took some children on a tidepool tour. The main point was to chat about museum collections and things we record or measure when we are out sampling. We didn’t go crazy catching fishes, only taking 3 Tidepool Sculpins (Oligocottus maculosus) in the end. But we talked about our role as museum researchers, and why we take more than 1 specimen (if possible) to get an account of variation within and between species.
You can see slight differences between these fishes – even an injury – just like the subtle, or not so subtle differences we see in each other.
The three fishes will be added to the Royal BC Museum’s ichthyology collection, but before that, they are fixed in 10% Formaldehyde. Researchers used to drop fishes directly into Formaldehyde – many fishes died horrible deaths. When I accidentally get Formaldehyde in a cut – it stings intensely – I couldn’t imagine being dunked directly into that chemical.
Today we are more humane, and give fishes an overdose of anaesthetic before immersion in Formaldehyde. They are dead before they are fixed, and are preserved with a relaxed posture. The primary anaesthetic I use is 2-Phenoxy-Ethanol, but it is hard to get without ordering from a chemical supply company, and the chemical is a suspected carcinogen. I still have about 500 ml of the stuff – so I will use up what I have. Do I really want to buy more? Maybe not.
Do we have safer options? Yes, Clove Oil is a good anaesthetic if mixed as an emulsion in a small volume of 99% Ethanol. But you have to carry a jug of 99% Ethanol everywhere you go – that may not go over well at a Police check-stop. The up-side to this chemical mix is that you smell spicy at the end of the day if you accidentally spill some on yourself.
People have tried Alka-Seltzer tablets. They fizz and release CO2, which knocks-out fishes – but the process is slow and some fishes (those like catfish that gulp air to survive in low oxygen conditions) are resistant and survive way too long in a stressful condition.
A few months ago I tried using Oragel (20% Benzocaine) on European Wall Lizards – colleagues had found it worked well on amphibians. They put Oragel along the spine of an amphibian and it soaks into the skin; I give lizards an oral dose. It renders bullfrogs and wall lizards unresponsive in 20 seconds to a minute. Oragel seems to be a convenient anaesthetic for these invasive herpetiles.
Yesterday, I told the tidepool group that we’d be performing an experiment – I tried Oragel for the first time on the 3 sculpins we caught. As I hoped – less than 20 seconds and the fishes were out cold. 2-Phenoxy-Ethanol takes about the same time on similar sized fishes.
The beauty of Oragel is that it is readily available, and if you run out, you can stop by the nearest pharmacy. It also is safe – we use it on sore teeth or gums. Perfect – it works fast on specimens and is safe for the researcher.
Perhaps someone needs to do a larger scientific study to see how effective over-the-counter Oragel is on larger fishes. Maybe this is an effective over-the-counter tool for preserving new museum specimens.
A specimen with no data is not worth keeping. A specimen with vague data is not worth keeping either. The Royal BC Museum’s ichthyology collection contains a vertebral centrum with cartilaginous remnants of its respective haemal arch and neural arch from a shark that washed up November 5th, 1975 (only a few months after Jaws was released in cinemas). It was cataloged as 976-00052-001 in the fish collection (with a variant of the catalog number listed as a previous number ~ B.C.P.M. #97652). Our electronic database only had a collection date for this centrum (no location, no collector).
Flip to our original paper catalog, and we find that there is indeed a collection location: Ahousaht Village, Flores Island – but this never got translated to our electronic database. The paper catalog states that the shark washed up on a beach – but there was no latitude and longitude provided for the record beyond 49°N, 125°W. If you plot the western-most limit of 125°W, it is nowhere near Flores Island – so the location is questionable. Ahousaht Village’s nearest beach is at about 49°16’N, 126°03’W.
Worse yet, the vertebral centrum indicates that this was a big shark – we don’t have a lot of big sharks here…
Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) reaches 6 meters
Pacific Sleeper Shark (Somniosus pacificus) reaches 5-6 meters
Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) reaches at least 9 meters
The shark centrum in the Royal BC Museum collection is about 7.3 cm in diameter – it spans most of the palm of my hand. This must have come from a decent-sized shark. Was it a small Basking Shark? A large Great White? A large Sleeper Shark? It’s not ‘reptilian’ so we can rule out Cadborosaurus (whew). Hang on, Cadborosaurus’ so-called “type specimen” was a photograph of a digested basking shark – Hmmm…
It is a shame no one bothered to take a skin sample – the scales may have been diagnostic. What about teeth? A sample of teeth – even one tooth – would have been enough to identify this fish. Sadly though, nothing remains other than this centrum and a bit of cartilage. It was fixed in formaldehyde and stored in isopropanol – so I think we can forget sending a chunk to Guelph for DNA barcoding. DNA barcoding wasn’t a thing back in 1975, so tissue samples were not preserved for future analysis.
If no one in Ahousaht has a photo of this shark on the beach, or some teeth stashed away, all I have to say is , “Sorry Charlie, the Royal BC Museum wants specimens with good data.”
This winter has been cold here in Victoria – relatively speaking. We have had lots of rain, several rounds of snow – and I even had to shovel my driveway and sidewalk. Actually I have had to shovel several times this winter. The rest of the country is not all that sympathetic to the wintery-woes of its Pacific Islanders.
One odd feature of Victoria is that Anna’s Hummingbirds are present year-round – because people feed them. Without artificial feeding stations, they likely would migrate south in autumn with the Rufus Hummingbird and return each spring. It still strikes me as strange to see a hummingbird in winter – given that I moved here from Winnipeg.
In my neighbour’s yard there is Holly bush that is a regular nesting site for our resident male Anna’s Hummingbird – the spot must be coveted because the prickly leaves are a great deterrent to would-be nest thieves.
This nest from 2005 was near the junction of Government Street and Niagra Street in James Bay – also in a Holly bush.
Our hummingbird – yes we are possessive even though we don’t feed hummingbirds in winter – is a regular visitor to our veggie garden and flowers in summer. It stayed this winter even though it was snowy and cold. Someone nearby must have a hummingbird feeder.
Not all Anna’s Hummingbirds were so lucky this year. Today I received a nest containing two feathered nestlings which were snuggled together in their soft little lichen-cup nest. This is certainly an early nesting attempt – they are known to nest from February to August, but nesting this early in the spring is a big risk.
The fate of the female is a mystery (males don’t raise their young). Did she hit a window? Run short of food and die? Did a free-range domestic cat get her? These two nestlings were in a sheltered spot alongside a house here in Victoria, but without a parent, they didn’t last long. Natural selection can be as cold as this winter.
In 2006 I spent a month at sea on the CCGS W.E. Ricker, collecting hundreds of deep sea fishes during a Tanner Crab Survey. Most fishes were identified the traditional way using anatomical features, but we didn’t have an extensive library on board, so many ‘field’ identifications were wrong. Such is life on the high seas when you are rushed to process samples.
Several snailfishes and of course the poorly known Flabby Whalefishes were only identified to genus. One snailfish with its distinctive pelvic girdle resembling a pair of bat’s wings – was simply labeled as “Batwing.” It was a few years later while sorting out some of the samples, that I tripped across a paper by David Stein (1978) describing our “Batwing” species in detail – Osteodiscus cascadiae. Keep in mind that the last comprehensive book on BC fishes – Pacific Fishes of Canada – was published in 1973… I was 6 years old. Pacific Fishes of Canada needs an update – it is woefully out of date.
This week I have been cataloging the last of the fishes caught on the 2006 Tanner Crab Survey – Screech – I know what you are thinking. A decade has passed since these fishes were caught. I am not a slacker – well, some would argue that – but there are many reasons why I am only now sorting and cataloging the last of the Tanner Crab specimens. Forgive me if progress is slow.
Many of the specimens we collected in 2006 had a small plug of tissue removed for DNA Barcoding. Three specimens (DNA barcode field tags from left to right, G5036, INV792, and 0738-Bo2), from Queen Charlotte Sound and west of the northern end of Vancouver Island were identified as Careproctus canus. If this is correct, they are the first for British Columbia.
The same can be said for specimens (barcode field tags from left to right, R5826 and G5026), both from Queen Charlotte Sound which were identified as Careproctus attenuatus. If correct, they are the first of their kind for BC, and both species C. canus and C. attenuatus, are way-south of their known ranges in the Aleutian Islands. We also caught one other snailfish identified as Paraliparis melanorhabdus (15943) – if correct it is the first specimen for the RBCM, but not the first for BC.
When I got down to the last few unidentified fishes to catalog in the RBCM database, I found that they had tags from the DNA Barcoding project. Obviously I looked up the molecular identification, but I have to wonder whether a genetic sequence was used to identify these new snailfishes, or whether the DNA barcoding team used our field identifications. We certainly do not carry an exhaustive library at sea, and we do our best to identify fishes with what we have at our finger-tips while the decks are heaving and rolling. Since I don’t trust my own eye regarding snailfishes – these noteworthy records need to be verified – and I think I’ll send them to a snailfish expert that I know just south of the border.
However, two specimens of Gyrinomimus (lovingly known as Flabby Whalefish) were identified as G. grahami (barcode tags, left to right INV0718 and R5828), and both were from west of the northern end of Vancouver Island. They don’t look much better in person. We left these specimens identified to genus because we had no literature for Flabby Whalefishes on board. As a result, I know the species-level identification did not come from me – and had to be based on molecular information. YAY, Gyrinomimus grahami (15942, 15935) is new to BC.
These interesting records alone justify the time taken to collect and send DNA samples to Guelph for the barcoding project. I may not be a gene-jockey, but if the identifications of these fishes are correct, we will rack up another three new species for BC, boost our knowledge of biodiversity, finally have two of our whalefish specimens o-fish-ally identified. Now to compare the newly identified whalefish specimens to the other 10 jar-loads of specimens to see if we have one or more species in our collection.
Thanks all you DNA barcoders – particularly Dirk Steinke who was out with us in 2006 – couldn’t have done this without you.