Tuesday, September 23, 2008

COLOR FORMS OF NEMATELEOTRIS HELFRICHI – IS THERE MORE THAN ONE SPECIES HERE?

The best known color form of Nemateleotris helfrichi from Micronesia.

Micronesian color form of N. helfrichi. Compare with Cook Island color form below.

Cook Island color form of N. helfrichi - compare the head coloration with that of the two specimens from Micronesia above.

A head shot of the same specimen from the Cook Islands.

There are probably a lot of you out there that encountered their first Nemateleotris helfrichi within the pages of Helmut Debelius’ FISHES FOR THE INVERTEBRATE AQUARIUM? I received a copy of this book in the mid-1980’s and was blown away by Helfrich’s dart or firefish! While the fish was new to me, it certainly was not new to science, having been described by Dr. Jack Randall and Dr. Gerald Allen all the way back in 1973.

This lovely fish is known to occur around the Ryuku and Ogasawara Islands, in Micronesia and Polynesia (the type locality being Tahiti). This fish started making its way into aquarium stores (to the best of my recollection) in around 1991 or 1992. The first specimens I was able to buy were from Micronesia. They had the characteristic coloration of the fish pictured in Debelius’ book. This same color form appears in John Randall’s FISHES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC. He describes the coloration of the fish as follows:

“..lavender, gradually shading posteriorly nearly to white and anteriorly on head to bright yellow; top of head from interorbital to origin of first dorsal fin with a narrowing band of bright magenta, merging with violet on dorso-anterior quadrant of iris; elevated anterior part of first dorsal fin orange and back with a broad, pale blue leading edge; rays of second dorsal and anal fins tipped with yellow or orange caudal fin pale yellow.”

This certainly describes the populations of N. helfrichi from Micronesia and Japan "to a T." But it turns out that the population of N. helfrichi from Polynesia is quite different chromatically. I had seen photos of N. helfrichi from this region before and knew the color differed. But recently my good friend Kevin Kohen was able to acquire some live specimens from the Cook Islands. While very expensive, I wanted to see this “color form” of N. helfrichi first hand and take photos of it.

As you can see from the photos above, the Cook Island fish differs rather dramatically from its Japanese/Micronesian cousin. Note for example the differences in the color of the head, the metallic blue on the “face,” the black line over the upper jaw and the subtle differences in coloration of the anal fin.

The holotype for the species N. helfrichi is a specimen from Tahiti (Randall and Allen 1973). Not surprisingly, the holotype is the same color as the Cook Island fish. That would suggest that the Polynesian fish are actually N. helfrichi, while the Micronesian/Japanese populations MAY represent an undescribed species. DNA analysis will be needed to emphatically answer this question. More to come on this one in the future.

© Scott W. Michael

Monday, September 22, 2008

CHILLING-OUT AT THE CLEANING STATION!

Cleaner fish cause predators to reduce aggression toward bystanders at cleaning stations

Karen L. Cheneya, Redouan Bsharyb and Alexandra S. Gruttera

Behavioral Ecology 2008 19(5):1063-1067

Mutualisms, in which both participants gain a net benefit, are ubiquitous in all ecosystems, and the importance of understanding their broader ecological context has been demonstrated many times. Indirect effects of mutualisms may have important implications for surrounding ecosystems through changes in density, species composition, or behavior; however, the latter has been difficult to quantify. In fish cleaning mutualisms, cleaners benefit by removing and consuming ectoparasites from clients, whereas clients benefit from a reduction in parasite load. Cleaner fish are also thought to benefit from immunity to predation and use tactile stimulation as a preconflict management strategy to manipulate partners' decisions and to avoid being eaten by piscivorous client fish. Here we show, using a laboratory experiment, that the presence of cleaner fish resulted in nearby fish not involved in the cleaner–client mutualism experiencing less aggression (chases) from predatory clients. In addition, the rate that piscivorous clients chased prey was negatively correlated with the amount of tactile stimulation given to the predator by the cleaner. These data suggest that, in the laboratory, the risk of aggression from predators toward nearby prey fish was greatly reduced as a by-product of cleaner fish presence and tactile stimulation of predators by cleaner fish. These results raise the question of whether cleaning stations act as safe havens from predator aggression.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

COLLETTE’S REEF BASSLET

A specimen of Liopropoma collettei from the Philippines (at least that is where I think it was collected!).

Holotype of Liopropoma collettei from the Hawaiian Islands.

In past posts we have been looking at some of the different reef basslets (genus Liopropoma). In one of my last posts on the genus a comment was made about L. collettei and how it was more attractive than L. susumi – well what do you think? The specimen above is an individual I recently acquired from Kevin Kohen (ww.liveaquaria.com). Liopropoma collettei is known from Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Hawaiian Islands. It has been collected on coral reef at depths of 6 to 34 m among stony corals, like Porites compressa and P. lobata. This species attains a maximum length of 8 cm (individuals from Hawaii are larger than those from other locations).

Randall and Taylor (1988) reported in their revision of the genus that Hawaiian specimens of what they call L. collettei differs from those from the Western Pacific in having 15 or 16 instead of 14 or 15 pectoral rays, no enlarged pore anterior to the posterior nostrils and in the total length (as mentioned above the Hawaiian specimens are larger). They decided to lump the two populations together as the same species based on similarities in body proportions and "especially in color pattern.." But, these researchers had never seen a live specimen from the Western Pacific. While the members of the two populations are similar in overall color, there are some subtle differences, as you can see in the photos included above. For example, in Hawaiian specimens the stripes on the body are dark brown (those on the fish from the Philippines are obviously reddish brown). While the Western Pacific population may not represent a distinct species, it certainly might (DNA analysis will be one way to determine if this is the case.)

I have been keeping one other specimen of L. colletti and have found it to be quite cryptic. In my experiences, the Liopropoma are all secretive, but some (e.g., L. swalesi) are more reclusive than others (e.g., L. carmabi is not as shy). I would say that L. collettei is a more reclusive species, maybe not quite as bad as L. swalesi, but close. My first specimen is in a nano-reef and is rarely seen. The only time I observe it is when it moves from one interstice to another or I occasionally see it peering out from under a ledge when only the actinics are on. If you invest in one of these beauties, do not expect it to parade back and forth along the front of the tank. That is why I recommend the members of this genus for nano-reef aquariums - if you contain them in a smaller area, you will be able to observe them with greater ease.

References:

Randall, J. E. and L. Taylor. 1988. Review of the Indo-Pacific fishes of the Serranid genus Liopropoma with descriptions of seven new species. Indo-Pacific Fishes 16, 47 pp.

© Scott W. Michael

NEW WOBBIES IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA!

WEST COAST ALIVE WITH UNIQUE SHARKS
The West.com.au
Georgia Loney
21st September 2008, 6:00 WST

Scientists have identified 46 new species of sharks in WA, 24 of which are thought to exist nowhere else.

The CSIRO’s 18-month project was to classify new sharks found in Australian waters.

Fish expert William White said a fascinating find was a one-of-a-kind carpet shark, found in the stomach of a school shark near Chatham Island, off Walpole.

While it was found almost 20 years ago, scientists were unable to state definitively whether it was a unique species, Dr White said.

“This one was a lot more elongated, it had a real ‘snake’ look,” he said.

“Even though it was obviously a new species, when you’ve got something that has come out of a gut of a shark, it’s lost colour and has had quite a few bite marks.

“The reason it took so long to classify was that we assumed we’d find other specimens and we never did.”

WA had also proved to have a fascinating array of unique Wobbegong sharks. “It’s almost like Western Australia was the centre of biodiversity for that group,” Dr White said. “There’s not many species known worldwide — only about 10 — but six or seven of them occur in Western Australia. “There’s been four new species described in Western Australia in the last couple of years.” Analysis of DNA sequences was used to differentiate closely related species of sharks, some of which scientists had thought were the same as those found outside Australia.

Other new species included the northern freshwater whipray and northern river shark, which are found in the top half of Australia.

Dr White said whiprays and northern river sharks could grow up to two metres long and were found in the Fitzroy River.

“It was originally thought to be a species which occurs throughout Asia, but it’s been found to be a separate species which is endemic to Australia,” Dr White said.

The new classifications would help manage marine ecosystems.

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Hundred New Sharks and Rays Classified


September 18th, 2008
Source: CSIRO

Australian scientists have completed an ambitious 18-month project to name and describe more than 100 new species of sharks and rays. Conducted by scientists working under the auspices of CSIRO's Wealth From Oceans National Research Flagship, the project named a third of Australia's - and about a tenth of the world's - shark and ray species.

Team leader, CSIRO's Dr Peter Last, says analysis of DNA sequences was used to clarify the identity of closely related species.

'Additional taxonomic information like this is critical to managing sharks and rays, which reproduce relatively slowly and are extremely vulnerable to over-fishing and other human impacts,' he says. 'Their populations are also sensitive to small-scale events and can be an indicator of environmental change.'

CSIRO's Dr William White says sharks and rays also play a vital ecosystem role as apex predators. 'Take them away and what does it mean for the rest of the ecosystem?' Dr White says. 'We can't understand possible implications unless we know what species we're dealing with.'

The new species include:

The endemic, Northern Freshwater Whipray and the Northern River Shark, which grow to over two metres in length, and are among the largest freshwater animals in Australia. Until recently these were confused with similar marine species.

The Endangered Maugean Skate which has an extremely narrow distribution. It is closely related Gondwanan ancestor which lived off southern Australia some 80 million years ago, and the present day species clings to life at the south-western tip of Tasmania.

A Critically Endangered gulper shark, the Southern Dogfish, which is endemic to the continental slope off southern Australia. It has suffered severe population declines in the past few decades.

More than 90 of the new species were identified but undescribed in the 1994 book; Sharks and Rays of Australia, by Dr Last and CSIRO's Dr John Stevens. The new names and descriptions will feature in a revised edition of the book in 2009. Specimens of many of the new species are in the Australian National Fish Collection at CSIRO Hobart - the largest collection of preserved sharks and rays in the Southern Hemisphere.

A workshop focusing on the project's findings will be held at Sydney's Australian Museum on 22 September during the 2nd Annual Meeting of the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society. Involving some of the world's leading experts in the field, the WWF-Australia-sponsored workshop also will assess priority areas of future research and management of sharks in Australian waters.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

GREAT WHITES HOLIDAY ON THE REEF

Tuesday, 09 September 2008
NIWA

Another tagged New Zealand great white shark has migrated to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia – one of nine sharks to be satellite tagged this year.

The three and a half metre shark, nicknamed ‘Thomas,’ was tagged with a popup archival satellite tag. The tag records information on light levels (from which approximate daily latitude and longitude can be estimated) as well as water depth and temperature so that the shark’s movements can be tracked.

After a predetermined time (six months for this shark) the tag pops off the shark, floats to the surface and transmits the data to a satellite that emails the information back.

‘Thomas’ was tagged by Department of Conservation (DOC) scientist, Clinton Duffy, off Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait, in February. The satellite tag popped up at Swain Reefs, off Rockhampton, late in August.

"This is only 100 kilometres from where another tag popped up last year from a shark tagged at Stewart Island after having travelled over 3000 kilometres," says Mr Duffy.

The shark tagging project, which began in 2005, is an international collaborative programme being run by the National Institute for Water & Atmospheric Research (NIWA), DOC, and Dr Ramon Bonfil from Shark Tracker/NABU (Germany).

NIWA fisheries scientist Dr Malcolm Francis says this has been a bumper year for white shark tagging.

“Until this year we’ve only been able to tag six white sharks in three seasons of field work. This year has greatly added to our tally with three more being tagged at Stewart Island and six more at Chatham Islands. Two tags have failed but we still have six more tagged sharks in the water which are due to report back between October and January, offering us an amazing insight into the secret lives of these apex predators.”

Once all the data has been transmitted from the latest shark, the project team will be able to determine the route the shark took, how deep it dived, and the water temperatures it experienced.

“Previous tagged white sharks have dived as deep as 1000 metres and encountered temperatures ranging from 3 degrees in deep water to 24 degrees in shallow tropical waters. This huge range in temperature is very unusual among fishes,” Dr Francis says.

Other tags have popped up in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, and half-way to Tonga.

“Previously we thought great whites were cold water, coastal sharks but we now know that many make trans-oceanic migrations to tropical waters. The reason for their winter tropical holiday is still unknown but we think they may be searching for newborn humpback whale calves, because all tags have surfaced in or near known humpback calving sites.”

WHAT IS THE MYSTERY FROGFISH?

Here it is - the frogfish that took the breath away from every antennariidophile on the planet! WHAT A FISH! But what is it? Is it a new species? A new genus? AAAAA! Photo by Marty Snyderman (www.starknakedfish.com).

“I can say that in my 40 or so years studying frogfishes and anglerfishes in general, I have never seen one like this. Very striking is the highly unusual, flat face that allows the eyes to be directed forward, perhaps providing for binocular vision. The dorsal, anal, and caudal fins appear to be highly fleshy, covered by loose skin. Also, looking closely at the forehead, in the pictures sent earlier, I can’t see any trace of a luring apparatus. If I had to say what it’s closest living relative might be, I’d suggest the genus Histiophryne, but this taxon differs in a host of other ways. In summary, it’s quite unlike any antennarioid I’ve ever seen and most likely represents a genus new to science.”

The statement above was made by Dr. Theodore Pietsch, the frogfish guru and co-author of Frogfishes of the World. This quote appeared in a number of web articles that introduced this wonderful fish from the Island of Ambon, Indonesia to the world. Those articles appeared earlier in 2008, but what has transpired regarding the identity of this amazing Antennariid since its first appearance on the web?

The fish definitely appears to be a member of the genus Histiophryne (which currently contains two described species). Here is how the genus is described by Pietsch and Grobecker (1987) - the most distinguishing characteristic is that the second and third dorsal spines are firmly attached to the surface of the cranium by skin, which makes them very inconspicuous (all that is visible is a bump on the head and nape). They also have dorsal and anal fins that extend past the base of the caudal fin and are attached to this fin. (The frogfish from Ambon appears to share these characteristics with the two described species in the genus.) The Histiophryne have a relatively short rod (illicium) and a lure that can be oval or lanceolate (in some cases it has skin folds). The angling gear is laid on the head rest in a narrow channel and may be hidden in some species by a fold of skin. The two described species (Histiophyrne bougainvilli and H. cryptacanthus are distinguished by the length of the illicium [it is longer in H. bougainvilli] and the rod and lure of the former is hidden in a groove on the head by folds of tissue.)

A pair of Histiophryne cryptacanthus in my home aquarium. This species was available on rare occasions, but because of their lack of color the market dried up fairly quickly!

One of the most unique things about the Histiophryne is their reproductive mode. These fish lay a relatively small number of large eggs, which remain in a cluster. The male wraps his body around, creating a pocket, which the eggs are hidden in.

A spotted color form of H. cryptacanthus from South Australia perched near a large tunicate.

As frogfish go, these Histiophryne are really quite homely! Their heads and bodies are often devoid of scabs, bumps, tassels or other adornment, the features that make many of the frogfishes more interesting (Histiophryne cryptacanthus sometimes has patches of scab like growths). They often appear smooth skinned. While the base color of these frogfishes is usually not that striking (for example, they are not cherry red, bubble-gum pink, screaming yellow or bright orange like some other froggies), some do sport interesting color patterns. That is, of course, what makes the proposed new species from Ambon so gob-smacking! The intricate network of white lines all over the head and body are particularly striking. The cryptic frogfish (H. cryptacanthus) sometimes has reddish-brown spots, with white borders, all over the head and body. However, some specimens are light colored overall (tan or light gray) with patches of khaki green and white and brown scabby growths.

Roger Steene's mystery Histiophryne from the Raja Ampats, West Papua. Is it a color form of H. cryptacanthus or something completely different?

Roger Steene has also photographed an interesting member of the genus from the Raja Ampats that has an intricate maze of narrow white lines (narrower than those on the Ambon species) that he and Dr. Gerald Allen call H. cryptacanthus in their book Reef Fish Identification - Tropical Pacific. But I am not confident in that identification. While it can be difficult to separate frogfish species on the basis of photos, I would bet this is something else. (Then again, it could be an unusual color form of H. cryptacanthus? Who knows without specimens.)

Another color form of H. cryptacanthus (it looks like a moldy chicken McNugget) - not as attractive as his Ambon cousin. This individual was photographed a Edithburgh Pier, South Australia.

So what about that proposed new species – the mysterious Ambon frogfish. This fish, which no doubt occurs in other parts of Indonesia as well, is probably new, but it is very likely a member of the genus Histiophryne. We will wait for the description to come out and I will certainly let you know when that happens.

©2008 Scott W. Michael

NEW DOTTYBACK? THE VERDICT IS IN!

You may remember the post a couple months ago titled DOTTYBACK DILEMMA (click here to read) where we examined a Pictichromis paccagnellae-like fish from Central Sulawesi. The dilemma was, is it a new species or just a variant of its more common cousin? Well the verdict is in. I sent specimens to Dr. Jack Randall, as did the ichthyophile, Kenn Hyltoft, who originally noticed the differences in this fish and P. paccagnellae. After some molecular analysis, it has been determined IT IS A NEW SPECIES! I am waiting to hear more about possible morphological differences (more prognathus lower jaw? coloration?) that hobbyists can use to separate the two species. I will pass these on to you when I hear what they are.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

MARINE MAMMALS ON THE MENU

A veritable brown bear buffet! Photo taken by Scott W. Michael.

It looked like a big, white amorphous blob at first glance, but after further investigation one could make out the mouth-end of the beast, the flukes and flippers. It was a humpback whale that had washed up on the shore of Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, Kodiak (Alaska) about a week before we searched it out. We had heard reports that the whale had been deposited by winds and waves on the Kodiak coast, but finding the rotting blubber-laden beast was to prove a bit of a challenge. When we visited the local rangers station, they didn’t seem too eager to tell us where it was. After further probing, they finally shared the approximate location. As we left the office, a ranger mumbled “Watch out for bears.” We concluded this is why they were hesitant to share the cetacean’s resting place - they did not want to have to deal with a problems that can occur when people and food hoarding bears cross-paths.

It turns out that dead whales are a favorite of coastal brown bears in parts of coastal and insular Alaska. The tons of rotting blubber, flesh and whale organs can produce an olfactory beacon that can reach the nasal epithelium of a brown bear many miles away (there are anecdotal accounts of bears smelling putrid whale from 20 miles away). The culinary tastes of a brown bear are not that refined, and besides whale flesh has lots of nutrients that can help a bear lay down fat for the denning period. The only drawback to eating a dead whale is the flesh can be hard to handle. The skin is so tough that even a massive brown bear can have a difficult time tearing a chunk free and masticating it. (The blubber layer of a whale’s flesh can be as thick as 43 to 50 cm!)

A whale carcass can attract many bears, as was the case on the California coast centuries ago. In the book “California Grizzly” (1955) the authors share the following:

Those (ed. grizzly bears) living near the seacoast were attracted to the bonanza supply where ever a whale washed ashore – and the one-time abundance of whales in our coastal waters probably made this a not uncommon event. The first reports of bears eating this food was by the VizcaĆ­no party at Monterey in 1602; a very large whale had gone ashore, “ and the bears came by night to dine on it” (Wagner, 1929). Revere (1849) wrote that the carcass of a whale, thrown upon the beach, will attract a “regiment of bears” – and Kotzebue (1921) used the term countless “troops.”

On the shores of Kodiak Island and along the Katmai coast, groups of brown bears feed on moribund whales, while on the Kenai Peninsula, bears of various age classes are reported to move to Bristol Bay to scavenge on dead gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) (Glenn and Miller, 1980). In the Yukon, grizzly bears have been observed to scavenging on Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) carcasses. Troyer (2005) reports seeing 12 bears feeding on a gray whale carcass at the same time (there were 18 bears in the immediate vicinity). He states that all of the bears worked over the carcass, only occasionally engaging in brief altercations during the feast. Some bears would leave, only to have their place taken over by another bear. Bear continued feeding on it for a week, at which time the remains of the carcass were carried away by the tide. There are reports of observers seeing brown bears entering or appearing from a hole in a large whale carcass. Apparently, the bears entered the bloated whale to feed on the internal organs or chew at the muscle from the inside. After gorging themselves with whale flesh, brown bears may roll on the odoriferous carcass. The function of this behavior (which, unfortunately, is also a habit they share in common in domestic canines) is not known.

Brown bears occasionally capture live pinnipeds, like these harbor seals. Photo by Scott W. Michael

Not only are moribund marine mammals consumed, brown bears have actually been known to captured and kill pinnipeds. Of course, polar bears are well known form their seal-eating habits. They have developed hunting strategies and physical adaptations to effectively exploit this resource. Grizzlies, on the other hand, feed on these animal opportunistically. If a hungry bear encounters a hauled out seal that it can get to before the latter can reach the water, it may attempt to subdue it. For example, grizzlies have been known to eat harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) along the Alaskan Peninsula and in the Northwest Territories of Canada. They are more susceptible to bear attack than some other pinnipeds (e.g., sea lions) because they are much more cumbersome and would have a more difficult time escaping if they are too far from the water’s edge. Seals are also more likely to be found along sandy shorelines, where bears sometimes hunt. That said, in most cases, seals haul out on small islets along the shore – habitats that are not often visited by grizzlies. There are also rare reports of big coastal brown bears taking on walruses (this has been reported on the Kenai Peninsula) (Glenn and Miller, 1980).

(Unfortunately, it turned out we never did encounter any bears on the Fort Abercrombie humpback carcasses the day we visited it, but I would not be surprised if it was eventually located and fed upon by opportunistic brown bears.)

References:

Glenn, L. P. and L. H. Miller. 1980. Seasonal movements of an Alaska Peninsula brown bear population. Int. Conf. Bear Res. And Manage. 4:307-312.

Check out these videos of brown bears feeding on dead whales:

A mother brown bear and her offspring feed on a whale carcass in Japan. Click here.

A group of brown bears feeding on a whale carcass on coast of Kodiak Island, includes wallowing on dead cetacean (please pardon the silly commentary). Click here.

© Scott W. Michael

A NEW REEF BASSLET?

A possible new species closely related to Liopropoma swalesi. I call this fish Reynold's reef basslet.

Swale's or Swalesi reef basslet (Liopropoma swalesi). While it will typically do well in the home aquarium, don't expect to see if very often as they are prone to hiding incessantly. A nano-reef with a cave is a good venue for this fish. Compare color to possible new species above.

Here is another lovely reef basslet. It may be a color form of Liopropoma swalesi, but I am hopeful it is a new species. While similar to Swale’s reef basslet, you can see by comparing the photos of the two fish above, there are distinct differences in the color. Two type specimens of the fish were sent to Richard Pyle at the Bishop Museum. He is the process of naming a number of Liopropoma spp., including the yellow-tailed reef basslet - a deep water species that has been making its way in the trade with some regularity. (A word of warning about the yellow-tailed Liopropoma; everyone that I have obtained [three specimens] had decompression related issues – they would eventually start floating, tail-up, until they perished.) I am hoping the fish above will be named after the person that brought it to my attention, fish-monger, Dennis Reynolds.

Monday, September 15, 2008

LIPSTICK ON A PIG? HOW ABOUT "LIPPY" ON A BEAR?

A female brown bear from Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, sporting red "stick." The red pigment is actually from the blood of a pink salmon the bear just consumed.

IGNORANT "BEARANOIA" COLUMN AND INTELLIGENT RESPONSE!


Bear attacks hit record high in Alaska

by Karl Vick - Aug. 17, 2008 10:01 AM
The Washington Post


EAGLE RIVER, Alaska - Most times, in Alaska, the bear eats you.

But this summer, in a record year for maulings, Devon Rees managed a draw with the grizzly that leapt onto him as he sauntered home between a stream brimming with salmon and the busiest highway in the state.

"Bear comes flying out, gets its fight on," said Rees, 18, nursing his wounds on the couch of his grandmother's trailer perhaps 60 yards from the scene of the Aug. 4 battle. Bandages covered puncture wounds on the inside of both his thighs, and blood seeped through the gauze around one elbow. His jeans lay in shreds on the floor. His left eye was puffy from the swat of a massive paw.

"She was moving around like a dog will when it's fighting," said the 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound Rees, who had been at a friend's house until 2 a.m. watching a movie called "Never Back Down." "It was fist to claw."

In a typical year, Rees would stand out as the Anchorage area's one and only mauling victim. These days, he's just a face in a crowd of them, notable chiefly for defying expert advice that playing dead is the best way to survive after spooking a grizzly.

At least eight Alaskans have been battered by bears this year, with three maulings in five days in early August. And though no human fatalities have been recorded, the summer of the bear is testing Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife, an evolving attitude that differs from views in the Lower 48, where grizzlies run half as large.

"Most places in Alaska don't have a persistent problem with bear or moose, because if it's anywhere near the village, they shoot it, no questions asked," said Rick Sinnott, the Alaska Fish and Game Department biologist charged with reconciling the 350,000 humans who reside around Alaska's biggest city with the wildlife who live there, too. "It's the Last Frontier mentality: You don't tolerate any risk from wild animals."

But at least until this summer, Anchorage residents were more inclined to live and let live, many residents being from "outside" and intrigued by the sight of moose wandering through the city - as well as by the predators that stalk them.

"The joke used to be, Anchorage isn't too bad because it's only two hours from Alaska," said Sean Farley, a bear biologist with the Fish and Game Department. "The truth is, Alaska is right here. We've got bears. We got moose. We got wolves. You name it."

And this summer, a poor season for salmon has made the bears loiter longer at Anchorage streams and be less tolerant of interruption.

"If you don't get enough to eat, you get cranky," Farley said.

The first attack, on June 29, was one of the worst. Petra Davis, 15, was cycling in a marathon bike race at 1 a.m. on a trail beside a salmon stream in the city's Far North Bicentennial Park. In the darkness, with the wind whipping the cottonwood trees, she may have careened broadside into a mama grizzly. It chewed through her bike helmet, crushed her trachea and cut into her shoulder, torso, buttocks and thigh.

"She was on the ground, sitting up, bloody, her cellphone out," said Sinnott, who heard a recording of the call Davis managed to place to 911. "She was apologizing because she had a hard time talking."

She got out the word "bear." Another rider directed paramedics.

Suspicion centered on a grizzly sow with two cubs that had been the subject of a half-dozen reports in the area over a six-week period. One jogger said he discovered the sow running behind him and pulled himself forward as its jaws snapped shut an inch from his rear end.
The next attack came July 23, a few yards from the front door of the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, 100 miles south of Anchorage. Abi Sisk, 21, had just stepped onto a trail in the 11 p.m. twilight. She was bending to look at flowers when a grizzly lunged.

"She heard growling, and all of a sudden it was on her," said Dan Michels, the lodge manager. A guest heard "what he thought was laughing," from the parking lot and saw the bear with Sisk's head in its mouth.

The beast ran off after the man ran toward it, waving his arms and shouting. Sisk, a housekeeper, survived, partially scalped and with a broken jaw. Since May, a dozen bears have been shot on the Kenai Peninsula after threatening humans.

"The idea of bears is so predominant and so much bigger than the animals themselves," said Sherry Simpson, a University of Alaska professor and author of a book on bears and humans.
Farley, the biologist, has worked with grizzlies weighing 1,000 pounds, and he laughed aloud at Rees' vainglory. For appreciating the overpowering strength of Ursus arctos horribilis, Farley recommended a video shot five days before Rees's encounter, in the same town, by a woman who at first mistook for her baby's cries the sounds of a moose being killed by a grizzly.

"They got to do something about these bears," said Scott Simpson, a shipping executive, pausing at the scene of the Rees attack and voicing an opinion heard more and more often around Anchorage. "I've been all over the backwoods here and never seen it like this. The prevalence this summer is just staggering."

The sense of crisis took hold on Aug. 8, four days after Rees's encounter, when at 5 p.m. Clivia Feliz jogged onto Rover's Run, the city park trail where Davis was attacked. She had run 800 feet when the ears of her border collie, Sky, went straight up. Two grizzly cubs were 30 feet ahead on the trail, sniffing the ground.

"I'm thinking, Where's the sow?' " Feliz said from her Anchorage hospital bed. Not seeing one, she turned and ran back down the trail. The cubs gave chase. Feliz veered into the woods, figuring that "if I disappear from sight, maybe the cubs will just forget, like kids."

"But they were still coming."

Before she saw the mother bear, she heard it, first on the trail, then crashing through the brush. Feliz, 51, lay down behind some dead trees. The cubs "blew right by me," but the sow veered her way.

"I could see her nose go up. She scented me."

The bear was on her in seconds. There was no growling or clicking of teeth. It just stared at Feliz, huffing, then lunged at her head and "chomped right down" on the arm Feliz brought up reflexively.

For a few seconds, the bear simply held her captive, pushing Feliz's head and shoulders with its paws and mouth but not biting.

"She was just staring at me," said Feliz, a massage therapist. "And I was thinking I should protect my vital organs, because if she bites me in the stomach, you know, a lot of blood there. I drew my legs up. There was another huff. She bit down, but she bit down very deliberately this time.

"I could feel the ribs cracking. I knew she had bit into something, like an organ." Four ribs snapped, partially collapsing a lung.

Her screams of pain did not faze the bear, which held her down a few more moments, then left the way the cubs had gone. Feliz waited a few minutes before staggering back to the trail, her right arm hanging useless, with a crushed brachial artery, her left arm held against her bleeding torso. Sky reappeared, and when they reached a road Feliz flagged down a passing car.
"I know about bears. I've lived here 12 years," she said. "I'm not blaming anybody else. The bear was the bear and did what bears do."

That sensibility remains common across a state where fishermen routinely carry guns.
"I don't see it any different than New York in rush hour: You just have to pay attention. Our cars just have hair and teeth," said Don Smith, a telephone technician packing a .45 along with his fly rods as he prepared to float the Russian River, not far from the Kenai Princess Lodge.
Grizzlies routinely fish the bright teal waters alongside humans in what "feels like joint custody," said Sherry Simpson, the professor.

In Anchorage, trails placed beside streams are used both by bears and by people who often forget that a city can also be part of the wild. Analyzing the DNA from fur collected from thistles and wires, Farley found that 20 different bears passed near the stream where Davis and Feliz were mauled. Radio-collar tracking indicated that when salmon are running, bears are almost always within 100 yards of the stream and, therefore, the trail.

"There's the problem of enhancing salmon streams that run through cities," said Simpson: "Ring the dinner bell."

_________________________________________________

Outside reporter needs to do homework on bears
by Craig Medred - August 30th, 2008
Anchorage Daily News/OUTDOORS

Let's not mince words here: Washington Post staff writer Karl Vick is an ursine illiterate.

This is not name calling, of which I generally disapprove, but a simple statement of fact.
Here is what Vick "reported" in the Sunday, Aug. 17 edition of one of America's great newspapers:

"EAGLE RIVER, Alaska -- Most times, in Alaska, the bear eats you."

In how many ways is this wrong?

Number one: Most times, in Alaska, bears and humans coexist without any thought to that old cliche that cautions "sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you." Generally, people and bears meet, look at each other, mutually go "oh-oh,'' and then retreat, or flee, in opposite directions. This happens thousands, possibly tens of thousands of times per year in this state.

Despite a widespread, paranoid belief that grizzlies are big, brown, hairy people-eaters, they are not. A whole business has been built around people viewing huge, wild grizzly bears along the Katmai Coast. It would have been gone long ago if the threat of those bears eating people was significant.

Number two: When bears do attack -- a rare event in and of itself -- they almost never eat anyone. They apparently don't consider us very good prey. Bears bite people, and then they flee. Most bears are like heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson, not Kiwi cannibals. Sometimes the injuries from bear bites are severe, but the flesh is usually still all there.

Some years back I was attacked by a grizzly bear. It had my ankle in its mouth when I shot it. It was biting, not eating.

When the attack happened, I was doing the most dangerous thing you can do in grizzly country -- sneaking quietly through the woods on the hunt for moose. I am confident that if I'd been making lots of noise I never would have gotten close enough to a whole family of grizzlies for things to get messy. They would have been long gone because it is the general policy of bears to avoid us.

They flee us, because they fear us. They fear us, because they have good reason.

Even the bears seem to understand that Vick got the first paragraph of his story 180 degrees wrong:

Most times, in Alaska the people eat the bear, or at least kill it.

ODDS FAVOR HUMANS

Not counting bears shot in defense of life and property or run down by cars in this state every year, humans kill 1,000 to 1,500 grizzly bears and about twice as many black bears. Most of the grizzlies become rugs or trophy mounts. Few people eat grizzly flesh; it's pretty rancid. But a good share of the 2,500 to 3,000 black bears reported taken by hunters each year are eaten as food.

Given these numbers, the odds are at least 100 times greater that people will get the bear than that the bear will get them.

Was Vick's claim to the contrary the end of the nonsense (or even if I thought he'd simply made a bad try at humor), I might have been able to restrain myself from calling him out on this story, but he goes on to hype the situation unjustifiably.

"But this summer,'' he writes, "in a record year for maulings....''

Says who?

The story doesn't say. It just throws the observation out there. I frankly don't know if the claim is true or not. There is no clearinghouse for bear maulings in Alaska.

Tom Smith, a former U.S. Geological Survey biologist here and now a professor at Brigham Young University in Utah, struggled to pull together a database on past maulings some years back. He admits he probably didn't get a perfect count on the number of Alaska attacks, but he got the best one out there.

It shows attacks averaging about 10 to 20 per year with peaks of 26 in the late 1990s. Have there been more than 26 people attacked by bears so far this year in Alaska?

If so, it's news to me.

This is, indeed, a record year for bear attacks in the Anchorage area, what with two unprecedented maulings at Far North Bicentennial Park within sight of downtown, and another at Eagle River. But Anchorage is not "Alaska," even if the half-million-acre Chugach State Park in the center of our broadly drawn "municipality" can provide a real taste of that fabled place.
I doubt, however, that Vick has any idea of the scope of the municipality or how much wilderness it includes back behind the strip-mall urban edge. Like so many Outside writers who buzz through town, he appears clueless to the scope and variety of the 49th state. I'm frankly tired of it. Some basic reporting might help some of these people, although even that doesn't appear to work for Vick.

"...The summer of the bear is testing Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife, an evolving attitude that differs from views in the Lower 48, where grizzlies run half as large,'' he writes.

I've lived here more than 30 years, and I have no idea what "Alaskans' carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife'' is, but that's not the problem.

MONSTER BEARS

The problem is the idea that Alaska is filled with monster bears twice the size of any elsewhere. The weight of grizzly bears in the American West is in the range of 400 to 600 pounds for males and 250 to 350 pounds for females. Interior Alaska grizzlies are about the same or slightly smaller, and the farther north you go in the state, the smaller, in general, the bears get.

The full-grown grizzly that killed Richard and Katherine Huffman on the Hula Hula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2005 weighed only 300 pounds. Coastal Alaska bears are different. They are so much larger than Interior bears that Alaska bears were long divided into two categories -- grizzlies and coastal brown bears. That was until taxonomists finally figured out that a coastal brown bear is just a really well fed grizzly. The bears are now referred to in many circles as brown/grizzly bears.

Along the Katmai coast, big boars will indeed get to 1,200 pounds, maybe even more. Locally, here on the inland coast, a 900-pounder would be considered a big boy. That is only about a third again as large as one of those Lower 48 males. But, more importantly, weight tells the least important part of the story.

Those huge coastal grizzlies are animals that get that way by stuffing themselves with salmon. It would be an overstatement to describe these bears as "fat and happy" for most of the summer, but at least they don't come running from miles away as Interior and Arctic bears sometimes will, to check you out as a potential meal.

Let's not forget, Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers engaging in his bear-fondling goofiness with the Katmai bears without a problem. He didn't get killed and, oddly enough, eaten until he ran into an unruly October bear -- a 28-year-old bear with broken teeth; a big, old bear needing calories to maintain its overgrown, 1,000-pound body size, a bear that scientists might describe as "food stressed."

Not to mention there's no telling what Treadwell might have done to provoke an attack. Bear biologists generally agree that if Treadwell had tried to get up close and personal with Denali National Park bears or Arctic refuge bears the way he did with Katmai bears, he wouldn't have lasted a summer.

BASIC FACTS WRONG

But I guess it could be as easy to overlook these differences among Alaska bears as it is to get other things simply confused. Vick again:

"...Don Smith, a telephone technician packing a .45 along with his fly rods as he prepared to float the Russian River, not far from the Kenai Princess Lodge.

"Grizzlies routinely fish the bright teal waters alongside humans in what 'feels like joint custody,' said Sherry Simpson, the professor."

Hmmm.

Carcass-eating bears routinely "fish" alongside anglers on the Russian but not the Kenai. The Russian, however, has crystal clear water. The teal water is in the Kenai River which runs past the Princess Lodge. The Kenai also has several places for floaters to put in and take out boats. There are no put ins or take outs on the Russian, but I guess Smith could have been dragging a boat through the Russian River Campground to the river.

I've always kind of wanted to float the Russian myself just to see the reactions of the anglers who line both banks in places.

The only thing stopping me is that I'm chicken.

The Russian is only about half-a-cast wide, and I've always feared that if you went floating through the middle of the salmon an angler or two might try to snag you in the nose with a fly or bounce a big old chunk of lead off your head.

Maybe Vick should go do this float. In his case, having a sinker bounced off his noggin might be a good thing.