Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 9, 2007

Relative Ugliness

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:12 pm

   If one goes by the adage that fleas have tiny fleas on their back to bite ‘em and on ad infinitum, then picturing something ugly with something still uglier attached should be a fairly easy task. 
  The primary ugly thing in question is the common carp. Graced as they are with huge orange lips, short whiskers and blank cow like stares, they are beyond all but motherlove. These hefty immigrants are in their glory this time of year. The surface of every marsh, pond or shallow lake is boiling with their spawning dance. Huge egg laden females, nearly as round in girth as in length, patrol the weedy shallows.  The males accompany her and wait to fertilize her cascade of eggs. Back fins, tails and golden sides break the surface as the fish roll about.
  While engaged in watching this annual ugly love fest, I spotted the aforementioned attached uglier thing. Firmly attached just under the dorsal fin of a sizable female carp, a Silver Lamprey was silently engaged in its parasitic role.  The silvery beast trailed like a streamer and was clearly visible against the backdrop of dark fish and silty water. I spotted the passenger several times over the course of twenty minutes as the host fish swam about the weed bed.  One time the carp’s back broke the surface and carried the lamprey out of the water.  The lamprey gave an uneasy wiggle, but held firm during its brief trip into the air world.
  Before I am accused of being judgmental, please take a look at this drawing of a Silver Lamprey.  Combining the qualities of a snake, a worm and an eel, here is a fish that is truly aesthetically challenged.  It lacks the paired fins, scales, jaws, and true bones (it has a flexible cartiledge skeleton) of most of the fish clan. The single most distinctive trait of lampreys in general is hinted at in their family name: Petromyzontidae or “stone suckers.” 
  All nineteen species of lamprey have rather large round suctorial mouths and half of them, the Silver Surfer included, use them to feed on the blood of other fish (the other half are non-parasitic).  The non-native Sea Lamprey has given a bad name to the parasitic members of the family. Their damaging efforts have wreaked havoc on native fish populations ever since their migration into the western lakes. The Silver, however, is a small (about 12 inch) native lamprey that is part of the natural order of things.
  The business end of this lamprey is an impressive (but ugly) circular mouth armed with a formidable array of teeth (see it here). All the teeth point inward to a toothy tongue just ahead of the throat. The outer rim of the mouth is lined with a hair-like fringe.  I might point out that a view of the top of the head is equally as endearing (see it here).  Since the mouth takes up so much space, there is little room left for a pair of nostrils.  A single nasal opening can be seen as a rather attractive hole in the middle of the forehead (a sure conversation stopper if ever there was one)
   This handsome look is not attained until the young lamprey has lived for 4 – 7 years as an “Ammocoete” or larvae.  In the larval stage, it feeds on detritus and conceals itself in the mud. Adulthood is signaled by the transformation of the mouth into an instrument of blood sucking, after which the creature is destined to roam the waterways for two years as a parasite. The cycle is complete when two lampreys fall in love and spawn (an act where the female grabs onto a stone, by the way).  Then, they both die.
  It is somewhat ironic, then, that “my” Silver Lamprey was sipping a meal from the back of a spawning carp so that it too can spawn. Once satisfied with a tummy full of blood, it will release its hold and swim off.  The carp will exhibit a raw circular wound as a memento of the experience – a lamprey hickey of sorts.  This wound will heal in time and the ugly fish will regain its beautiful ugliness and live to spawn again.
  As for the future of the ugliest one, it will probably seek out another host or it may have already made plans for a big date this weekend (a date to die for, no doubt).

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