The most anticipated week of wildlife programming is upon us via Discovery Channel and we are sure to see lots on great whites, bull sharks and other potentially dangerous creatures.
I want to start off with something different-the gentle giant of the Gulf of Mexico and other warm seas-the whale shark.
Here are five facts you probably did not about about these under appreciated beauties.
Fact #1: Whale sharks are filter feeders and a big part of what they eat are fish eggs. As spawning approaches on reefs and other fish-rich areas they have been documented waiting for the eggs to appear and then moving into gorge themselves.
Fact #2: Whale sharks hatch their own eggs inside their bodies. The mother will hatch out about 300 babies but very few make it to maturity. And even when they do it takes upwards of 25 years to be able to reproduce. That is why the death of a whale shark can have a big impact on the species.
Fact #3: Speaking of making babies, no one has ever observed whale sharks mating. Well, at least no one in the scientific community has. They spend a huge portion of their lives on the open sea where few eyes gaze upon them.
Fact #4: The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the only facility with an opportunity to swim with captive whale sharks. They have four and a portion of what they make on the encounters goes to field conservation.
Since 2004, the Aquarium’s field research focused on the many whale sharks that visit the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, the largest gathering of its kind in the world.
“By using satellite tags, aerial surveys and photo identification software, Georgia Aquarium and its partners have studied and tracked over 1,000 whale sharks known to visit this area to feed on plankton and fish eggs every summer. The future focus for field research will be to explore connections to populations of whale sharks found in more remote places on Earth.”
Fact #5: Whale sharks sometimes beach themselves or enter shallow bays when sick. When I was eight years old, a medium-sized whale shark entered Sabine Lake, a bay on the Texas/Louisiana border near my home.
This is from United Press International in a story dated July 10, 1982.
A rotund 26-foot whale shark knicknamed ‘Gums’ died an unusual death in an oyster bed in Sabine Lake, a biology professor says.
Dave Bechler, Lamar University assistant biology professor, said Friday the shark was a rare find along the Texas coast because it does not normally inhabit Texas coastal waters.
‘There was probably something already wrong with it,’ he said. ‘Whales and whale sharks sometimes beach themselves. We really don’t know why they do that.’
Whale sharks are incredible creatures that deserve our adoration. They are certainly not frightening and get far fewer headlines than their carnivorous cousins. They are however the largest shark (and fish) in the ocean. That should count for something.
My first encounter with a blacktip shark came while soaking a big hunk of cut mullet behind a shrimp boat in the Gulf of Mexico.
I will never forget seeing the streamlined fish burst from the water like a wayward rocket and achieve an almost marlin-like tail walk on the sandy green surface. To my fishing hosts, this was just another annoying shark but to this young angler it was an amazing moment.
These sharks are popular and important for sport anglers on the Gulf Coast, yet they are greatly misunderstood.
For starters, all “blacktips” are not necessarily blacktips.
Young bull sharks are sometimes mistaken for blacktips by novice anglers due to the black markings on their fins but on closer inspection, the rounded nose and bulldog like appearance of the bull is a striking contrast to the sleek blacktip.
The spinner shark however is much more difficult to differentiate from blacktips. In fact, many veteran anglers and biologists have a hard time telling the difference at first glance.
They are very similar in body shape and size and both are quite acrobatic when hooked although the spinner twists like a tornado as the name implies while blacktips do more straight jumps.
The best way to tell them apart is the anal fin on the spinner is black whereas the blacktips is not. In reality, the spinner has more black on its tips than the blacktip in most cases.
If you were to ask anglers if these species were dangerous, most would answer with a resounding “No” since they are not in the lexicon of deadly sharks.
In fact, the Discovery Channel produced a highly rated program about the top 10 most dangerous sharks and neither made the list, while both the oceanic whitetip and shortfin mako did.
Those species rank far below both the blacktip and spinner in terms of unprovoked attacks on humans according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
ISAF data show blacktips are responsible for 28 unprovoked attacks and 13 provoked attacks (think feeding, harassing, etc.). Spinners have been responsible for 15 unprovoked attacks, and one on the provoked side.
For comparison, the oceanic whitetip committed five unprovoked and three provoked attacks, while the shortfin mako dished out 8 unprovoked attacks and 15 provoked.
In the network’s defense, its list featured numerous factors, including fatalities, size, and likelihood to encounter humans, which would obviously put species like the great white above many other known attackers, but in terms of raw attack data, blacktips and spinners deserve our respect.
They are also species humans are likely to encounter in shallow water along beaches, where anglers tote stringers of speckled trout and other sport fishes, not to mention the scores of swimmers.
It is also possible blacktips and spinners are responsible for more attacks than ISAF can accurately list.
“Positive identification of attacking sharks is very difficult, since victims rarely make adequate observations of the attacker during the ‘heat’ of the interaction,” according to George H. Burgess of ISAF.
“Tooth remains are seldom found in wounds, and diagnostic characters for many requiem sharks (including blacktips and spinners) are difficult to discern even by trained professionals.
“Realistically, almost any shark in the right size range, roughly 6 feet (1.8 meters) or greater, is a potential threat to humans because, even if a bite is not intended as a directed feeding attempt on a human, the power of the jaw and tooth morphology can lead to injury.”
This does not mean you should start worrying about becoming a blacktips next meal. After all, shark attacks are rare no matter the species. However, you might want to give them a bit more respect because the statistics don’t lie.
Pictures of famous professional anglers like Rick Clunn and Larry Nixon holding beautiful, huge largemouth bass haunted my imagination. I thought the anglers I read about in the magazines were cool but those bass they held were at another level.
Those fish blew my mind.
At this point living near the coast, my freshwater fishing was limited to a gully down the road from my house. Me and other kids in the neighborhood had amazing times there catching garfish, grinnel and bullheads.
That’s all we caught though.
I brought down Creme plastic worms and Beetle Spins I bought at the local tackle shop but the only bites came from grinnel. None of us ever caught a single bass.
One day while fishing that gully, the tide brought in purple water. And I mean solid purple.
No fish bit that day.
I found out a local factory had been dumping plastic dye into the water along with other pollutants and the oxygen levels in the system were very low. Most fish could not live there and the bayou itself was named the most polluted in Texas.
A few months later I ventured down a couple of miles from the house on my bike and came across a rice canal that pumped clean water from the Sabine River into local fields. When I crossed over the levee and saw the water I was stunned. This water was clear like the footage I saw when tv pros Jimmy Houston or Bill Dance fished Florida.
Swimming slowly along the shoreline was a largemouth bass. It was a 4-5 pounder.
It looked like Moby Dick to me.
As I pondered the amazing sight, something clicked.
This water wasn’t dingy. It certainly wasn’t purple.
It was clear.
There was lots of vegetation growing and it had bass.
“There must be something to clean water and bass.”
From that day on I made the connection between water quality and quality fisheries.
And it obviously wasn’t just me that had a similar epiphany somewhere down the line.
Just the catch-and-release ethic birthed by bass fishing alone has changed fisheries worldwide.
“There is no doubt that live release of bass during tournaments has elevated the mindful conservation of fishery resources by anglers. Before B.A.S.S. introduced the ‘Don’t Kill Your Catch'” concept in 1972, bass were filleted and donated to the local communities,” said Bassmaster Editor James Hall.
“Once the mindset of catch and release became a part of the bass fishing culture, the management of the sport fish became a priority for both angler satisfaction and tourism industry. Now, the same conservation ethic has been established with other species: walleye, redfish, etc. The angling public sees the benefit of returning fish to the water so they can be caught again.”
Hall said working in the bass fishing industry has had a profound impact on his personal views of conservation.
“Working closely with our conservation director, Gene Gilliland, as well as having relationships with fisheries biologists throughout the country, I have developed a keen interest in water quality issues. I heard about the grass carp release at Lake Austin, which destroyed a killer largemouth fishery, and it makes me sick to my stomach,” Hall said.
“The controversy between “Big Sugar” and the water quality issues they have created below Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades sets a dangerous precedent. And I see a lot of great things, as well, like B.A.S.S. Nation groups adding artificial structures to lakes to improve bass recruitment.”
Pete Gluszek of The Bass Universitysaid their organization is focusing on environmental issues because they impact everyone.
“It’s important that we utilize The Bass University platform to bring attention to issues related to the health and advancement of our fisheries,” Gluszek said.
“There are all sorts of things from storm water runoff, pollution, watershed protection and habitat development, to name just a few that impact the resources that we depend on for great fishing.”
That includes hiring Craig Durand as their environmental director.
“I applaud Bass University’s vision and commitment to protect and improve the health of our lakes and rivers,” Durand said.
“We all live downstream, we all cherish our waters, and I look forward to supporting Bass University’s mission to improve our fisheries through education and community involvement.”
It’s a vision that virtually everyone in the bass fishing world has embraced whether they realize it or not and it has had a huge ripple effect.
I got reconnected with my personal “green” revelation a couple of years back.
I was asked to dive a private lake that had only been fished by family and inspect some of the deeper holes away from the shore.
When I approached a huge log, something moved out of the murk on the bottom into the clear water above.
It was a 10 pound class bass you can see in the clip above and when I locked eyes with it I was immediately transported back to that rice canal 30 years ago.
For some reason it looked like the exact same shade of green as the one that impacted me so profoundly. After shooting a quick video the bass disappeared and I would be lying if I said I didn’t return and flip a jig around that log a few times-unsuccessfully.
That encounter reinforced the importance of letting such a fish grow to maturity and it also reminded me without clean water and healthy habitat no fishery whether in a private lake or in the Gulf of Mexico can be sustained.
Over the years I have worked with numerous fisheries conservation projects, most notably southern flounder, but it all goes back to my first “green” encounter in a rice canal in West Orange, TX.
And with the fishing industry focused more than ever on water quality and healthy fish bag and size limits the future is bright.
Maybe it would be more proper to say the future is bright green or better yet “bass green”, the true color of conservation.
Yesterday our journey through the “Wild Gulf”-our summer long quest to raise awareness to wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico paid a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sea turtle facility at Galveston, TX.
Since 1978, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has been participating in an international Sea Turtle recovery program. Currently the NMFS Galveston Sea Turtle Facility is participating in a variety of projects including injured and sick turtle rehabilitation, satellite tracking of wild turtles and numerous studies involving Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs).
We will post more on sea turtles later this month but for now here are some photos from yesterday.
One of the most dangerous of all sea creatures is the box jellyfish.
They are famously abundant in Australian waters where fatalities are reported on an annual basis.
They are also present in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Gulf, we have the four-handed box jellyfish, a species I was made aware of by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist Jerry Mambretti in 2014.
“Our gulf sampling crew caught four-handed box jellyfish, Chiropsalmus quadrumanus, a member of the class Cubozoa, in 3 separate trawl samples about 2 miles off McFaddin NWR beach,” Mambretti said at the time.
“Box jellyfish are known for the extremely potent venom produced by some species, including this species, which is normally found in the west Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean. Their sting is very venomous and dangerous to humans, especially children.”
A study by William Guest noted the species has been known to be abundant in the Matagorda Bay system in the 1950s and their presence has a lot to do with salinity levels..
“The development of a large population coincided with drought conditions and high bay salinities along the Texas Gulf coast. When bay salinities dropped considerably in 1957 the jellyfish disappeared. The jellyfish were found to be living on or near the bottom at all times and preferred areas of soft mud.”
TPWD recommends for most jellyfish stings to splash the area with salt water.
“Then apply a paste of unseasoned meat tenderizer. Don’t press the skin. The pain should go away within an hour. Regular vinegar or a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water also work to alleviate pain.”
If you think you have been stung by a box jellyfish however seek medical attention immediately. Encounters are rare but the potential for serious problems exist if you do happen to bump into one of these tiny creatures.
In two days, two people have been killed by separate black bear attacks in Alaska.
Erin Johnson, 27, was killed while doing contract work with Ellen Trainor, 38, who was also attacked but survived with relatively minor injuries.
This comes a day after 16-year-old Patrick Cooper was killed while running a race in the wilds of his home state.
Bear attacks are rare.
Black bear attacks are even rarer.
Only six attacks attributed to black bears had been documented previously in Alaska in more than 100 years.
Currently there are around 100,000 black bears inhabiting Alaska alongside 700,000 people. That means there is one bear for every seven people which is a pretty high ratio even factoring in the amount of habitat in the state.
This story has wildlife apologists throughout the blogosphere and broadcast media making statements like “most fatal black bear attacks are examples of the animals defending their territory” and “the majority of attacks are by mothers defending their cubs”.
Not true. Not even close.
A study published in The Journal of Wildlife Management documents 63 people killed in 59 incidents by non-captive black bears between 1900-2009.
Here is the standout quote from the study.
We judged that the bear involved acted as a predator in 88% (49 of 56) of fatal incidents. Adult or subadult male bears were involved in 92% of fatal predatory incidents, reflecting biological and behavioral differences between male and female bears. That most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and were carried out by one bear shows that females with young are not the most dangerous black bears.
That a majority of black bear attacks are predatory is something recognized by the bulk of fish and game departments throughout the United States. Even my home state of Texas which has a small (but growing) black bear population distributes information stating that if anyone is attacked by a black bear they should fight back.
Advice to play dead is often given regarding bear attacks but that is for grizzlies which often attack to protect territory or perhaps because they didn’t like the way the person looked that day. (Hey, they’re grizzlies. They can do what they want!)
But it is known that black bear attacks albeit rare are often predatory as this study shows.
Another interesting note came in regard to proportion of bear to human population.
Fatal black bear attacks occurred in Canada and Alaska and in the lower 48 states. There were 3.5 times as many fatal attacks in Canada and Alaska but only 1.75 times as many black bears, and much less human contact for black bears in Canada and Alaska. There was a weak positive correlation between the estimated size of a bear population within a given jurisdiction and the number of fatal black bear attacks. Some jurisdictions had no fatal black bear attacks but had large estimated black bear populations.
In a state where bears are not hunted and have little reason to fear people it could be argued that is a factor. But Alaska has plenty of bear hunting and in fact there are around 3,000 black bears killed by permitted hunters there annually.
The vast majority of black bears are not out to get people. If they were a highly dangerous animal states like California that have 30,000 bears and 30,000,000 people would have attacks frequently.
That’s not the case.
Chances are these two attacks simply happened. These very unfortunate people were in the wrong place at the wrong time and met the wrong bears.
But the response to whitewash black bear predation must stop. Education is always the beginning of conservation and the public in bear country needs to be educated on the fact black bears do sometimes kill and eat people.
And more importantly there is a profile so to speak of the most potentially dangerous animals which are males especially older ones. That way if a bear comes strolling through someone’s back yard a few times they can make an informed decision. They may just want to tighten up trash pickup and avoid grilling outside for a bit or if its a bruin they may decide to call their fish and game department about relocation.
People also need to know that bears are a vital part of the ecosystem and can and do live with very little incident through North America. Fear does no one good. Truth however goes a long way in helping bears and people.
Bear management is complex but if cool heads and common sense prevail there is no reason education and forward-thinking conservation plans can’t decrease the already small number of attacks.
Because you see while it’s easy to belittle the number of fatalities, it offers no comfort to the families of those killed by the bears.
The best way to honor them and be good stewards of black bears is to move forward with the truth at the forefront and science-based management solutions that have both bears and humans in mind.
With numerous “reality” shows based on pursuing and eradicating them they are a go-to species for wildlife coverage.
I’ll never forget watching a program that said a Texas woman was “trapped in her home” for weeks due to hogs outside.
Really? Are they that dangerous?
The answer is no but the reality is some hogs do attack and in fact some kill humans.
Dr. Jack Mayer of the Savannah River National Laboratory been studying wild hogs since the 1970s and his research sheds light on “killer hogs”.
The study documented 412 wild hog attacks worldwide impacting 665 people. During this time there were four fatal hog attacks in the United States.
Of the 21 states reporting hog attacks Texas led the pack with 24 percent with Florida at 12 percent and South Carolin 10. Interestingly when examining worldwide shark fatalities hogs actually beat them out in deaths some years-including 2013.
In his study, hogs that attack are described as solitary (82 percent), large (87 percent) and male (81 percent) and most attacks occurred when there was no hunting involved.
This describes a lone, mature boar, likely territorial that is much more powerful and faster than one mightimagine.
There are numerous accounts of hunters (usually hunting hogs with dogs) getting hooked by a boar. These are situations where hogs are cornered and lash out in defense.
The profile created by Dr. Mayer shows an entirely different kind of hog. These hogs attack totally unprovoked.
In 1998 Robert Burns of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service wrote of two verified attacks in my home state of Texas, including a 1996 fatality.
“In one instance, a boar attacked a woman on a Fort Worth jogging trail. Two years ago, a Cherokee County deer hunter died from a feral hogattack.”
The Benton County Daily Record chronicled a wild boar that, “attacked and flipped a utility vehicle on a job site in Waco… and severely injured a Gentry man.”
The story details that, “Greg Lemke, who designs chicken houses for Latco Inc. of Lincoln, was a passenger in a utility vehicle when the wild boar struck the rear of the vehicle, causing it to flip with Lemke inside.”
“The accident left Lemke paralyzed from the breast bone down.”
The Pineville Town Talk tells the story of a Pineville, La. man who had a pig enter the house he was visiting.
“Boston Kyles, 20, of 497 Pelican Drive told deputies he was visiting his sister’s house at the time of the incident. He said he had gone there to clean fish and was sitting in the house’s front room when the pig entered through the front door. Kyles told deputies he stomped the floor to try to shoo the pig out of the room, but the pig charged him, Maj. Herman Walters said.”
“Walters had heard of pigs attacking people in the woods but said this was the first time he had heard of a pig going into a house and attacking someone.”
In my book “Hog Wild”I reference an Edgefield, South Carolina man who experienced one of the scariest hog attacks I could find occurring in the United States.
The Edgefield Advertiser reported, “A man was hospitalized recently after being attacked by a wild hog at his home on Gaston Road. The hog, which eyewitnesses estimated to weigh upwards of 700 pounds, materialized in Fab Burt’s backyard while he was working in his garden.”
“It came out of nowhere and attacked me. It had me pinned on the ground and was mauling me.”
Fortunately, Burt’s seven-month-old German shepherd, named Bobo, was on hand to help him fend off the hog.
As previously mentioned, hogs are not out to kill people. Well at least most of them aren’t.
Apparently there are a few out there however who don’t mind coming after humans which is why we should always give them plenty of space.
That keeps us out of the path of their tusks and maybe even off the day’s menu.
My late uncle Jackie Moore was a man of few words but when he told a story it always seemed to have an interesting twist.
“It crossed the road in front of us on in San Saba and it had a full eight point rack but it was half the size of a normal whitetail.”
He related that account several times and after his passing I mentioned it to my father (his brother) and was shocked at what I heard.
“I saw one of those little bucks down in San Saba too. We hunted the same lease and I saw one there. It was half the size of the other bucks with a full rack.”
Considering the Texas Hill Country has some of the nation’s smallest deer, that would put the weight of this tiny buck at around 40 pounds.
After pondering this I started looking for photographic evidence.
Photos of someone holding a super tiny fawn that fits in one’s hands circulate on the net and often claim they are whitetail. They are not. Those are muntjac deer which hail from Asia and only get to about 35 pounds at adulthood.
Here’s a shot of me with a muntjac fawn that was a couple of weeks old when the photo was taken.
After blogging on this issue last fall a reader sent a photo that is without a doubt the best proof of “micro whitetails” I have ever seen and this is the first time it has been published.
Notice the small buck is in the foreground so it should appear larger than the one in the background. That means this deer is indeed a tiny one and would fit the size description of the ones my Dad and Uncle encountered in Central Texas more than 40 years ago.
In conducting an Internet search on the topic I found several references.
We use to have one where I went to college. Can’t remember what everyone named it but it was a dwarf deer. People would see it all the time and it was about half the size of a normal adult deer as well. These deer were very tame too as they were never hunted in an urban area so you could get fairly close to them. Use to trap deer there and then tackle them so we could put tags in them and do some research. Tried to get the mini but never did get him to go in one of the traps. (From T_3 Kyle on Taxidermy.net)
I was watching some hunting show. I can’t remember which one it was, but they showed a midget whitetail buck walking down a trail. It was neat looking, short stubby legs and it had a nice little rack too. (From JMBFishing2008 on Indianasportsman.com)
The Key Deer is the smallest subspecies of whitetail and it is found only in the Florida Keys chain of islands. The next smallest is the Carmen Mountains Whitetail found in a remote mountainous region of West Texas and northern Mexico.
Is there a recessive gene akin to dwarfism in whitetails? Have you seen one of these deer? If you then shoot us over a report or preferably a photo or video link to email@example.com.
Whitetails are the most common large animal in North America and the idea of micro versions running about is truly fascinating.
Chester Moore, Jr.
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The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is the most frequently seen marine mammal in the Gulf of Mexico.
Seeing a pink one however is extremely rare.
That is why we were excited to see this clip provided by Matt Metzler. It shows a pink albino dolphin jumping in front of a boat off the Louisiana coastline. The action begins at about the 17-second mark.
In 2013 we captured footage of a pink albino dolphin in the ship channel near Cameron, La. This particular dolphin with the obvious nickname “Pinky” has been thrilling fishermen who encounter it for at least a decade after Capt. Erik Rue began photographing the creature on his charter trips.
Here’s the clip we captured that day while out with our friend Scott Bandy in his bay boat.
An article in The Guardian back in 2009 reveals some interesting things scientists have observed about this creature.
“While this animal looks pink, it is an albino which you can notice in the pink eyes. Albinism is a genetic trait and it unclear as to the type of albinism this animal inherited.”
Some believe there are several “Pinkies” in the vicinity but little research has been done on the subject.
I have interviewed two people who claim to have seen pink dolphins from the ferry in Galveston, TX a three hour boat ride (in calm waters) from Cameron, La. The animal could certainly make that trek but there also could be more of them out there.
We will investigate more and let these video clips serve as a reminder of the beauty and mystery contained in the Gulf of Mexico. If you see such a creature by all means shoot photos and video but don’t chase or harass the animal.
This summer The Wildlife Journalist (R) is partnering with our Kingdom Zoo children’s ministry to raise awareness to the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico. We are calling the program “Wild Gulf”.
We’ll be making treks from the Florida Panhandle to Port Isabel to document by photo and video the unique species that inhabit Gulf waters.
“The Gulf of Mexico and its species do not get enough attention in the national and world spotlight,” said Kingdom Zoo’s Lauren Williams, an eighth grade wildlife conservationist.
“We are going to do our best to change that and at the same time let kids in our ‘Wild Wishes’ program take part in these adventures.”
“Wild Wishes” grants exotic animal encounters for children who have a terminal illness or have lost a parent or sibling.
Be on the lookout for much more on from the “Wild Gulf” and for those mysterious pink dolphins along the coastline.
And if you happen to come across a stranded or sick marine mammal call 1-800-9-MAMMAL. The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network will give you instructions and if the situation is serious they will take action to help the animal.
Chester Moore, Jr.
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