Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 18, 2009

One Born Every Minute…or So

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 5:29 pm

I think it was P.T. Barnum that said something about a “sucker being born every minute.”  If he didn’t, well, he should have. It was a show-mans job to sucker people into spending their money under the big top. Whoever said those prophetic words, I am pretty confident that they were talking about people and not fish. That phrase, however, would fit certain finny residents found under the big Detroit River. Deep down on the spring spawning beds, suckers are literally being born every minute …or so. By this I mean sucker fish.

Although the Lake Sturgeon eggs claimed the spotlight on my recent trip aboard the USFWS Sentinel, there were plenty of sucker eggs in evidence on the egg mats as well. These fish spawn in the mid-spring while the waters are still below 60 degrees. It is at this time of year that the little suckers start their journey toward becoming big suckers! There are many different kinds of big suckers in this river, so it would be unfair – a sucker punch as it were – to refer to them as one type of fish.  All of them are bottom feeders with downward pointing mouths and all are members of the minnow family, but beyond that they have unique traits and habitat needs. 

One of the research nets snagged a nice Silver Redhorse Sucker just upstream from the spawning beds, so this gives me an opportunity to introduce one of these fish to you. As you can see by the portrait (see above) the Redhorse is a lovely fish with protruding lips, gentle eyes, and a big head. This chunky individual was about 24 inches long and covered with large yellowish-green scales. Scientifically, this species goes by the name Moxostoma anisurum which means “sucking mouth fish with an un-equal tail” in Greek. As part of the Redhorse clan it has reddish fins and a horse-like face. Perhaps you’ve  heard the one about the Redhorse sucker that went into a saloon? The bartender, sensing the need to talk, went up to him and asked  “so, why the long face?”  It is well known that they drink like fish, so this story is likely true. The Silver Redhorse is separated from the other long-faced Redhorse species (the Black, Golden, River, Short-headed, and Greater) by a solid gray tail, a convex dorsal fin, and a “V” shaped angle in the bottom lip.

Take a good close look at those lips (see below) and you’ll see that angle expressed as a split lip. Among suckers this mouth is considered “small,” believe it or not. There are many fingerprint like grooves on the surface and you’ll note that the ridges on the bottom lip break up into bumps called papillae.  I suppose it would be more appropriate to call this the “back” lip since the natural position is behind the “front” lip – it is only the “bottom” lip when the fish are standing at the bar!

This Silver fish was evidently a male involved in the spawning business. His orange tinted anal fin and the lower half of his tail were covered with white bumps called tubercles (see below and here). These structures only appear during the breeding season when the fish are charged up for love. By early June, the bumps magically disappear and the fish revert back to their solitary ways.

We released this sullen-looking Redhorse back into the river after recording a few vital stats. No doubt it quickly resumed his habit of  hanging out at the local gravel bars and living the life a poor sucker.


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