November 30, 2018
"Sea Creature" Washes Ashore
Beach finds are the best.
Sea glass, sand dollars, the coveted Scotch bonnet, olives, and shells
with bright purple coloring are just a few of the things that bring
people delight and wonderment when traversing Ocracoke’s beaches.
Other more unsightly beach finds can also bring a sense of wonderment.
While out for a beach walk, Ocracoke resident Mona Aly found a prime
example of this and posted photos asking for the creature’s I.D. The
carcass, discovered between ORV ramps 70 and 72, looked enormous and
prehistoric: #megalodon. Large scales lined its back and sides, and the
shape of its head and mouth was long and narrowed at the tip. It was
quickly identified as a sturgeon, but as one commenter put it, it was,
“… one big a** sturgeon.”
These fish are considered living fossils, so all the folks who
commented that it looks like some prehistoric creature were on point.
Sturgeons share physical features with other ocean inhabitants. The
rows of bony plates on their backs are called scutes (sea turtles also
have scutes, and they’ve also been around for millions of years), but
sturgeons also have whisker-looking barbels that hang down in front of
their mouths, giving them a sort-of catfish look. A sturgeon's tail
resembles a shark’s with one lobe being bigger than the other; all
these characteristics combined give this fish its unique and
Baby sturgeons are hatched in fresh water but then head for salt water
where they mature. Females typically leave their natal waters around
six-months of age, whereas males wait five or six years before heading
to coastal waters. When the time comes to lay their eggs, sturgeons
head back to fresh water. These creatures are slow to grow, but once
they hit their growth spurt they can be up to 14 feet and weigh 800
pounds! They can also have a pretty long lifespan, living up to about
The Atlantic sturgeon is one of two subspecies of the family A.
oxyrinchus, the other of which is the Gulf sturgeon. There are other
species of sturgeons that live around the world, twenty-five in fact,
that, along with the Atlantic and Gulf sturgeons, all belong to the
Acipenseridae family. All twenty-seven species are grouped into four
sub-species, and their evolution dates back some 208 to 245 million
years ago, hence their “living fossil” classification. Sadly, four of
the twenty-seven species may now be extinct.
Atlantic sturgeons can be found from Canada all the way to the southern
part of Florida, though their natal populations have decreased
significantly due to overfishing, habitat loss, and accidental death
due to boat traffic and by-catch. When caviar was a big to-do in the
late-1800’s, people flocked to the East Coast in search of sturgeon
eggs, and became known as the “Black Gold Rush.” By the early-1900’s,
sturgeon populations had decreased drastically, going from reportedly 7
million pounds caught in 1887 to 20,000 pounds by 1905. In 1989, only
400 pounds were caught. Now, these fish are protected under the
Endangered Species Act within U.S. waters.
Tagging data indicates sturgeon migrate up and down the coast, but
during the late-summer and fall retreat to fresh water flowing into the
Chesapeake Bay to rivers in Georgia. Sturgeons that live in the
northern parts of their habitat range live longer than those who live
off the Florida coast. The warmer climate is believed to accelerate
maturity, thus shortening life spans. At times, sturgeons are spotted
in estuaries, leading some to assume they’re preparing to head into
freshwater to spawn, when oftentimes sturgeon in these areas are simply
feeding. And what are they eating while traversing the rivers and
coastal waters? Sturgeons are bottom feeders that prefer crustaceans,
worms, mollusks, and bottom-dwelling fish.
This poor guy met his demise on Ocracoke's shores, but provided us with
a chance to learn about another amazing creature that shares our local