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 prehistoric look.

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 60 years.

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 waters.


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