Monday, March 16, 2009


Al (a.k.a. Scarface) - the alpha boar in Geographic during our stay in 2008.

One of the big stars of Geographic was a big, heavily scarred male that we called “Al” (as in Al Pacino - Scarface). He appeared to be the dominant bear, as all other bruins in the area gave him wide berth. While we never saw any bears fighting at Geographic, the evidence of some serious combat was obvious.

A boar with a serious flesh wound. Injuries like this typically heal very quickly.

On one of our last days in Katmai, we observed a large boar with a flap of flesh peeled back from a large, open wound on its hind quarters. Every adult boar had war wounds. In most cases, these were gashed on the forelegs or wounds around the neck area. One bear had a gash on its head that almost reached the eye (at first we thought the eye had been damaged). While everything seemed fairly copasetic during our stay, the area was no doubt an arena from some terrific bruin battles.

A large boar bearing wounds on the forelegs and around the neck - war wounds from intense bruin battling!

Grizzly Aggression

Stonorov and Stokes (1972) found that there were four situations in which aggression most often occurs in brown bear aggregations. They were: 1. when one bear moves too close to another bear (invades personal space) 2. when one bear loses a challenge but then redirects its aggression toward a nearby bear (displacement aggression) 3. when two bears compete for a preferred fishing site 4. when two strange bears meet.

Stonorov and Stokes describes what happen during an intense, aggressive encounter between two bears that are similar in social ranking. The first thing that occurs is the bears confront one another – the two brown bears face each other with the front legs stiffened, the heads are lowered slightly and the movements occur in slow motion, the ears are laid back, both have their mouths wide open (this exposes the canines) and there is excess saliva production.

One of two things may happen at this point – one of the bears may back down or one or both bears may charge one another. When charging occurs one or both bears run at each other, the head is lowered and the ears are back and the mouth is open slightly. If neither bear breaks off the charge and retreats at this point, the big bears will come to blows. The bruins may swipe at each other with their fore paws, bite each other (usually on the neck) or lock jaws.

When one bear has had enough, it will drop its head even lower than its opponent and begin to slowly back away. At some point, the subordinate may walk or run away. During much of the encounter, there will be lots of vocalizations.


Stonorov D. and A. W. Stokes. 1972. Social behavior of the Alaska brown bear. Int. Assoc Bear Res. & Mang. 23: 232-242.

© Scott W. Michael

Friday, March 6, 2009

"PSYCHEDELIC" FISH PICTURE: New Species Bounces on Reef

Photograph copyright David Hall/

February 25, 2009—A recently discovered "psychedelic" fish (shown in a January 2008 picture) is bouncing into the books as a new species, a new study says.

With a swirl of beige and peach stripes stretching from its blue eyes to its tail, the newly named Histiophryne psychedelica was initially discovered by scuba diving instructors working for a tour operator a year ago in shallow waters off Indonesia.

The operator contacted Ted Pietsch, lead author of a paper published in this month's edition of the journal Copeia, who submitted DNA work identifying the psychedelic fish as a new species.

Like other frogfish—a subset of anglerfish—H. psychedelica has leglike fins on both sides of its body.

But it has several traits not previously known among frogfish, wrote Pietsch, of the University of Washington.

Each time the fish strike the seabed, for instance, they push off with their fins and expel water from tiny gill openings to jet themselves forward. That and an off-centered tail cause them to bounce around in a bizarre, chaotic manner.

Mark Erdman, a senior adviser to the Conservation International's marine program, said, "I think people thought frogfishes were relatively well known, and to get a new one like this is really quite spectacular. ... It's a stunning animal."

The fish, which has a gelatinous, fist-size body covered with thick folds of skin that protect it from sharp-edged corals, also has a flat face with eyes directed forward, like humans, and a huge, yawning mouth.

—Robin McDowell in Jakarta, Indonesia (Associated Press)

Click here to see some amazing video clips of this wonderful frogfish.

French surfer killed in New Caledonia shark attack

From correspondents in Noumea/ Agence France-Presse
March 06, 2009 07:33pm

A YOUNG French man has died after he was attacked by sharks while surfing in New Caledonia, police say.

The 19-year-old student's arm was ripped off and his leg bitten when he was attacked "apparently by several sharks" while trying to get back onto a boat with his friend on Friday, police said.

The man's friend managed to get him to shore, but he was dead by the time emergency workers reached him.

The incident took place in an area popular with surfers and was the first fatal shark attack in the French Pacific territory since September 2007, when a young nurse was killed.

The victim was from northwest France but was studying in the New Caledonia capital, Noumea.


A large boar gives its salmon prey a hug before "processing" it for ingestion.

Grizzlies use a number of different handling techniques when feeding on salmon. In most cases, the savvy “fisherbear” will grasp its prize in its jaws and carry it from the waterway to the shore, a gravel bar or surrounding grassy meadow/woodland (subordinate grizzlies, in the presence of conspecifics, are often more likely to move farther from the capture site than larger, more dominant bears). They then place their catch on the ground and stand on it with the fore paws. How the prey fish is processed may vary from one individual to the next or from one location to another. In many cases the first thing a bear will do is bite down on the posterior region of the fish and remove the tail section. Another body tissue targeted early in the handling process is the skin. To skin its quarry, the bear will grasp the skin with the incisors and pull upward, peeling the integument from the salmon’s body.

If food is in short supply (e.g., it is early in the salmon run or if fish numbers are down) the bear will consume the entire fish. If food is abundant, the bruin may select the choicest parts of the fish and leave much of its behind for scavenging birds, other mammals or even other bears (e.g., subordinate individuals or those that are poor at fishing). As mentioned in other posts, the skin is preferred as are the brains, but rather than ingesting the entire head, the bear often bites through the top of the cranium and laps out the brain or plucks them out with its incisors (see video footage below).

Not all bears take the time to leave the stream to eat their prize. It is not uncommon to see a bear, standing in knee deep water, clamping the fish against the front foreleg with the opposite paw (some bears employ this technique when eating fish on shore). The bear then rips the fish apart, one bite at a time. If the water where a fish is captured is shallow enough, some bears will pin the fish to the stream bed, while in a state of repose, and then stick their head underwater and rip pieces from their piscine prize (the bear will raise its head to masticate and then submerge to take another bite).

I have noticed that in many cases the fish rarely struggle much after being trapped in the bear’s jaws. They seem to go limp. They may flop about if the bear should drop them on the shore before pinning them down to eat, but otherwise they resist very little while in the jaws of the bruin. (I did see occasions where they fish would struggle if a bear bit down on the upper back.)

In the video featured below, you will see various fishing methods and some of these handling methods employed by a number of different Katmai brown bears. A few things to look for: there is a sequence of video that shows a big brown bear deftly removing the brain from a fish. There is a scarred, big boar diving into a deep river pool from the shoreline and submerging in an attempt to capture its slippery quarry (he finally succeeds in capturing a "spent" fish in the video and stands on its hind feet as it tears the fish apart). Toward the end of the video, you will see a large boar launching some of its great bulk from the river and plunging back into the water with fore legs outstretched. At one point, it has herded a big school of salmon along the river bank and appears to be trying to push some of the fish onto the shoreline. Turn up the sound and enjoy!

© Scott W. Michael

Thursday, October 16, 2008


A sow with her older cubs attempts to teach them to fish, although they prefer to play and loot their mother's catch.

Geographic’s fishing grounds were also home to a vivacious family unit, consisting of a sow and a pair of ~ 2 1/2 year olds. The mother was an efficacious “fisherbear,” while her cubs did little fishing. Instead, they spent much of their time grappling with each other like hairy Sumo wrestlers! When they were not playing, they were shadowing their mom and stealing any fish that she hauled in. Most of the time she would let them take off with her catch, although she did occasionally attempt to wolf down some of her piscine prey before she was looted by her greedy brood. On one occasion she lost her patience and cuffed one of her overzealous offspring before giving in and letting go of her fish (see video below). Occasionally, the two hooligans attempted to include mom in their frolicsome behavior. She complied a couple of times, jawing at her young assailants.

A trio of grizzlies: a sow with her two offspring (these to youngsters are probably 32 months old). Note how she does all of the fishing, while they benefit from the fruits of her labor! Compare these two laggards with the adolescent fishing machine below.

In contrast to these impish, 2.5-year olds, we observed an amazing young bear that was a fishing machine! This bruin was a ~ 1.5 year old (usually referred to as a yearling) with a light colored (nearly blonde) mother. The pair initially made their presence known when the mother, with the cub trailing behind, were observed chasing another bear. They gave up their half-hearted chase and began to slowly meander toward the prime fishing area. Once they arrived at the river bank, it was not long before the yearling was chasing and even catching salmon! (There were few other bears in the area at the time.) The mother bear seemed to lag behind the young bear, keeping close enough to protect its progeny if the need arised, but yet far enough away to allow it to learn some life skills. The young bear was such an enthusiastic piscator that at one point it had a fish in its mouth, while it attempted to capture a second salmonid (see the video below)!

The fishing exploits of an ~ 1.5-year old (yearling) bear - this young bruin was a very effective fisherman, as you will see in the video above.

© Scott W. Michael

Monday, October 13, 2008


A sow with a first (spring) cub. Bother were very flighty. At one point, the cub ran into the tall grass and it took the nervous mother 20 to 30 seconds to relocate her progeny.

During our stay at Geographic Harbour, we spotted one sow with a first year (spring) cub, both of which were quite flighty. The sow had large, white fringed ears and her cub looked very healthy (it was quite chubby!). The first time we saw them, they made a brief appearance at the river when four or five other big bears were around. Their stay was brief, being cut short when the nervous cub was startled and dashed into the tall grass. Mother gave chase and after 20 to 30 anxious seconds was able to relocate her frightened offspring. The pair disappeared after that, apparently in search of safer pastures in which to feed.

On our last day at Katmai, this sow and her cub reappeared. The mother’s desire to increase her nutrient intake apparently overcame her concern about exposing her cub to conspecifics. The mother succeeded in catching a few fish, with the cub trailing right behind her (this includes venturing into the rapid moving water in the center of the stream). The cub also ate some its mother’s catch. It is sad to think that this tubby little bear has about a 40 % chance of surviving to adulthood.

Ginger Bear - a young bear, possibly chased off early from its mother. This is one of many pink salmon this little bear was able to capture.

On our second day at Geographic, we observed a small bear that cautiously made its way to the river. It appeared to be a young bear – possibly a runty three-year old. We speculated that it may have been run off by its mother prematurely or possibly it had somehow lost its maternal parent? It came to the river to fish and was successful in its efforts. Rather than eating it near the stream bank, the little bear grabbed its salmon by the tail and sought solitude in the tall grass. When fishing, it was very aware of its larger ursid neighbors, no doubt cognizant of its greater vulnerability because of its small size. This bear had a very distinct appearance – it was rather skinny and had large ears (it almost had a fox-like look about it). We dubbed it Ginger Bear because of its lighter pelage. We were to encounter ginger bear on a couple of occasions (more on this bear later).

Friday, October 10, 2008


Geographic Harbour (Amalik Bay) is picturesque, sheltered and infested with brown bears!

On previous trips to Katmai, most of our bear-viewing had taken place at Hallo and Kukak Bays. On our 2008 trip, we didn’t get to either of these sites as bear numbers were sparse at the time. Instead, we spent much of our adventure in Geographic Harbour, a picturesque site at the head of Amalik Bay. Like the rest of Katmai, the scenery is magnificent and bears are ubiquitous - there are usually at least two or three bears fishing in the main stream that flows into the bay. The harbour is surrounded by a high profile landscape that provides natural protection from the inclement weather that rushes across the Gulf of Alaska. It provides an ideal anchorage and a calm landing “strip” for float planes.

The downside of Geographic, is that on a clear day you are likely to share the prime bear-viewing spots with a number of “day-trippers” (these bear-viewers arrive by floatplane and remain in Geographic for two to four hours before being whisked back to Homer or Kodiak). During our stay, there were times where we were in close proximity to at least 30 other bear-viewers. While it certainly takes away some of the “wilderness feel” of the experience, this “bear paparazzi” did not seem to bother the bears that frequent Geographic Harbour (mind you, there may be other bears that would come and fish here but do not while the viewers are present). Also, in the early mornings and from mid-afternoon on, we were the only people among the bears.

A rotund sow (possibly a barren female - see notes in text below) exhibiting the typical Geographic Harbour dark pelage.

Interestingly enough, the bears that frequent Geographic Harbour tend to be darker in color than their Hallo Bay “cousins.” While you see some darker bears in Hallo, almost all the bears at Geographic are chocolate brown. While I am sure it varies from year to year, there were fewer bears at any one time on the Geographic stream than we had seen in early to mid-August at Hallo (we saw as many as 23 bears at once during one of our previous Hallo Bay visits, while the most Ursus arctos in view at any one time in Geographic was less than 10). This may be due to the fact that the prime fishing spots (at least those in view of the bear-viewing areas) in Geographic are not as abundant so there is less space for bears to fish comfortably around one another (fishing spots are more abundant when the tide is out).

In Geographic, there is high grass meadow (Calamagrostis spp.) that grows right up to the edge of some portions of the river. It was not uncommon to see subordinate bears, standing on their back legs, peering above the grass to make sure it was safe to take up a position along the water way. At low tide we would take-up a station on the intertidal flats, where bears fished in the dendritic tributaries that branched out from the main river channel. There is also a viewing pad, consisting of a flat, slightly raised bank situated along the edge of the stream that can be used at both low and high tide. It was not uncommon for bears working the stream edge to come within 15 to 20 feet of this viewing area.

While the area was never overrun with bears, there was often good fishing action in Geographic, especially at and around low tide. We saw numerous salmon pulled from the water by subadults, and both adult boars and sows (although the latter were slightly more abundant in the area). There were some fat, beautiful sows around the river, several of which were very effective at catching fish. One of these females was huge! Brad Josephs, brown bear expert, speculated that this was possibly a barren female, as they have a propensity to become very rotund.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


In late August of 2008, Janine and I were joined by five other photographers/naturalists on a trip to Katmai National Park. This included Larry Jackson, Debbie Titus, David Salmanowitz, and Larry and Nancy Peterson*. I had been to Katmai in 2006 and 2007 and was excited to get back, as well as share this very special place with great friends. Based on their reactions, I think they too have caught the bear bug - at least three of the five have expressed an interest to go back next year!

We were the guests of bear-viewing guru John Rogers (Katmai Coastal Bear Tours). He runs a number of boats along the Katmai coast and he, and his guides, know the area and the bears like no one else. I had been with John on my two previous trips and once again, John and company came through with a truly amazing wildlife experience!

Katmai Notes

In my past two visits to Katmai, I did my bear-viewing in early to mid-August. This year, we arrived in the land of the great bear a little later in the season (from August 22 until August 31st). We hoped to see more corpulent bears (as a result of a few more weeks at the “salmon buffet,” which is available from July into September) as well as some different behaviors. It was highly likely there would be more fishing activity as at least three and possibly four species of salmon (chum, pink, sockeye, and possibly silver) could be “running” at that time. I also wanted to document bears feeding on moribund and/or dying salmon, as this food source is an important part of the diet of hyperphagic bears.

It turned out the fish were present in large numbers. In fact, in certain parts of the Alaskan Peninsula (e.g., Bristol Bay), there were reports of huge fish runs. I certainly observed bears catching more fish during this trip than I had seen on previous visits (in the past two years I had seen relatively small runs when I visited). We observed pink (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), chum (O. keta) and sock-eye salmon (O. nerka) being plucked from Katmai’s rivulets. While there were definitely more fish, we saw fewer bears than we had on our past trips. Some locals speculated that the reduction in fishing bear numbers was a function of an abundant berry crop – many of the bears were in the ”bush” gorging on salmon berries. Even though Ursus arctos numbers were down, there were still more than enough bears to keep us in a constant state of awe.

First Stop Kodiak

We began our trip in Kodiak – the jumping off site to Katmai (i.e., you take a float plane from Kodiak to the Katmai coast to meet the “bear boat”). We arrived at Kodiak about five days before our Katmai trip was to commence. Katmai Coastal Bear Tours recommends that you show-up in Kodiak at least a couple days before your scheduled departure, just in case it is necessary to make an early trip to Katmai. If inclement weather is forecast for the day you are scheduled to travel to Katmai, John may have you fly out to the boat one or even two days earlier in an attempt to ensure you get to spend the time you paid for with the bears.

Spending some time on Kodiak is a treat in and of itself! It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, especially when viewed from the air. There are valleys, mountains, rocky coastlines replete with tide pools, clear streams and lakes and lush vegetation (the latter is a function of the high precipitation levels [average annual rainfall of 173 cm, average snowfall 198 cm]). And, of course, it also has a large population of brown bears (a.k.a. Kodiak bears). How many Comfort Inns in the world have a sign posted on the door suggesting that guests be very careful while moving about the parking lot after dark as a curious bear has been sighted lurking around the hotel! During our stay, there were a couple reports of Kodiak bear being sighted fishing in local streams. While we did not see any bears on Kodiak, we did visit a beached humpback whale carcass in hopes of seeing some scavenging brown bears. We also did lots of hiking, learned about spatterdock (Nuphar luteu) (thanks to Larry, our amateur botanist), enjoyed some amazing scenery and found some great intertidal, invertebrate life.

Fortunately, the weather was good while we were on the island (although we arrived on a blustery, rainy night) and we were able to get off to Katmai on schedule. In the next post, we will take a look at our first bear-viewing stop, Geographic Harbour.


* Larry and David are great dive buddies and accomplished photographers - Janine and I have spent many hours with them in the Western Pacific, both above and below the water! This was the first time we had traveled with Debbie - she was a delight to have on the trip and an accomplished photographer in her own right. Larry and Nancy are good friends from Lincoln, Nebraska (where we reside) that are passionate about wildlife. We want to thank these five great travel companions for sharing this wonderful ursid-rich experience with us!

© Scott W. Michael

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Undescribed Serranus sp. from Western Africa.

An example of this same fish in the aquarium. The banded color pattern is displayed when the fish is stressed/frightened.

The Central and Eastern Atlantic is home to a number of reef fish species, some of which are very similar to more familiar fishes found in the Western Atlantic. For example, you have the Marcella butterflyfish (Prognathodes marcellae), which is similar to the bank (P. aya) and threeband butterflyfish (P. guyanensis) of the Western Atlantic. Then there is the ever-popular resplendent angelfish (Centropyge resplendens), known from Ascension Island (in the Central Atlantic), which is similar to its Western Atlantic counterpart, the cherubfish (C. argi) and flameback pygmy angelfish (C. aurantonotus) (Note: Wirtz et al. have recently collected a specimen of the later species from the Gulf of Guinea). The lesser known West African coral hind (Cephalopholis taeniops), which is very similar to its Western cousin, the coney (C. fulvus) and the African Creole wrasse (Clepticus africanus) that is a sister species of the Creole wrasse (C. parrae).

Recently, a lovely little serranid has been imported from Western Africa. It is a handsome little fish that, thanks to the efforts of Joe Russo, has become quite readily available (e.g., usually has one or more available). According to Joe, they are collected in fairly deep water (greater than 35 m). Dr. Peter Wirtz, an expert on the fish communities of this region, tells me that he has seen this fish at depths of 50 cm (these were juveniles) to at least 30 m. He also reports that it is a solitary species. Wirtz et al. (2007) report that this fish is common on hard and soft bottoms at São Tomé and Príncipe (Gulf of Guinea). It is somewhat variable in color, as you can see in the two photos included with this post.

At first blush, it exhibits anatomical similarities to some of the wonderful aquarium serranids from the tropical Western Atlantic. One of my favorites is the semi-social chalk bass (Serranus tortugarum). While related, the Serranus sp. from Africa differs greatly from the chalk bass in disposition. The undescribed Eastern Atlantic serranid is a true hellion! It is both aggressive and highly predatory (it appears to relish any fish or crustacean small enough to swallow whole). So, while you may be tempted to plop one of these beauties into your moderately-peaceful community aquarium, you may want to think again! Sanjay Joshi has one in a huge tank (500 gallons) and it has caused him much consternation attacking and eating its tankmates. While a maximum length has yet to be established, it can get at least 7 cm in total length.

There are other lovely fish from this region that Joe is bringing in to the US market. I hope to feature some more of these in upcoming posts.


Wirtz, P., C. Eduardo, L. Ferreira, S. R. Floeter, R. Fricke, J. L. Gasparini, T. Iwamoto, L. Rocha, C. L. S. Sampaio and U.K. Schliewen. 2007. Coastal Fishes of São Tomé and Príncipe islands, Gulf of Guinea (Eastern Atlantic Ocean)—an update. Zootaxa 1523: 1–48.

© Scott W. Michael

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


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