Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

May 29, 2011

Bummer of a Birth Mark

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:37 am

Among fans of the cartoonist Gary Larson, there is a tendency to quote cartoon captions like biblical scripture & verse. There is no longer any need for the visual image that accompanies each line.  All that is needed to incite a laugh is to simply say the line. For example, one that should bring an immediate snicker out of a true “Larsonite” is “School for the Gifted.”  If you don’t know what I mean then you’ll have to picture a child pulling on a door clearly labeled “push” at the entrance to a building labeled as the School for the Gifted.  Actually I’m not sure if he was pushing or pulling, but either way the instruction was the opposite and the phrase alone has a life of its own.

I bring this up so that I can quote another classic: “Bummer of a birth mark Hal.” In this one (again for the sake of any non-Larsonites out there) one deer is saying this phrase to another deer with a target shaped mark on his belly. Indeed, I have often uttered this latter caption to myself whenever I see an Osprey feasting on a large wild goldfish – a surprisingly frequent occurrence around here. I am talking about a large gold-colored goldfish, by the way. Being gold is the bummer in this scenario, because a gold goldfish in the wild stands out like a sore thumb (or a clear target) against a natural background. It is no wonder that fish-eating Ospreys often single them out for destruction.

I was again reminded of this last week as I witnessed the annual spawning run of wild goldfish into our Lake Erie marsh. About the time that carp begin their splashy breeding rituals in late May, huge influxes of wild goldfish also make their way into the same marshes. We get lots of carp, but often there are literally thousands of goldfish swimming through as a large school. I have seen one such aggregation that literally stretched for miles (no I am not exaggerating). The only reason I can take notice of these fish within these muddy waters is due to the scattering of gold individuals among the regular ones. You know, those Osprey bait fish.

Perhaps I should explain how I know that these fish are not simply gold carp. Wild goldfish are introduced fish in Lake Erie and the Detroit River – a trait they share with Carp.  Although carp and goldfish are related, they are completely different fish descended from different stock. One way to tell them apart is to look for the presence or absence of barbels, or whiskers, about the mouth.  Carp have barbels and goldfish do not. Goldfish have a large hump behind the head and carp tend to have a sloping head to back transition. Color, oddly enough, is not a solid indicator of species but it can be a pretty good one.

There are gold carp (Koi are domestic carp) and there are greenish brown goldfish. Both fish have long been domesticated, so they can express their ornamental roots in their wild populations. Nearly all wild carp and most wild goldfish are greenish brown. A significant number of wild goldfish, however, carry on their gold or variegated gene pools.

But, back to the point of this essay.  Please look at the beginning photo and try to count the goldfish in that marsh view. I counted about 50 gold fish in that picture alone, although overall there were a hundred or so in the marsh at the time. The actual count of Goldfish – the species – was more like 500. Unseen in the spaces between the golden fish were the darker wild fish which outnumbered their ill-marked brethren by 10 to 1. Take a look at the photo below (and the larger version here) and you’ll see what I mean. In this shot there is one gold goldfish, one variegated goldfish, and at least 11 subtly colored goldfish mixed in the fray.

Now, I ask you. If you are a fish-eating bird, which individuals would you see from above?  In this school alone there are a definitely a few that are marked as “gifted.” You’d think these individuals would be eliminated over time, but I guess they have the advantage of numbers (or good schooling).


  1. Just wanted you know how much I enjoy your blog – the beautiful photography plus your insights into the workings of nature through the seasons. Thank you for taking the time to keep it going.

    Comment by Pat Flowers — May 30, 2011 @ 10:16 am

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