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Fishy Detective Work

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#1 mattknepley

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 04:10 PM

"Travels of William Batram" has long been on my "to read" list. I'm finally getting to it and have enjoyed what I have read so far(~70 pages) very much. For those not familiar, it is the "adventure-logue" of the famed botanist/naturalist's excursion through the southeast from 1773-1778, as told by Bartram himself. Of course, the fish parts are my favorites.

Early on he describes fishing for "redbreasts" in Georgia, which are very clearly what we call Lepomis auritus (redbreast sunfish) today. This following passage has me wondering though. It describes an event he witnessed in a trib of Georgia's Broad River, near the confluence with the Savannah.

"Before we left the waters of the Broad River, having encamped in the evening, on one of its considerable branches, and left my companions, to retire, as usual, on botanical researches, on ascending a steep rocky hill, I accidentally discovered a new species of Caryophyllata (Geum odoratissimum) on reaching to a shrub, my foot slipped, and, in recovering myself, I tore up some of the plants, whose roots filled the air with animating scents of cloves and spicy perfumes.
On my return towards camp, I met my philosophic companion, Mr. M’Intosh, who was seated on the bank of a rivulet, and whom I found highly entertained by a very novel and curious natural exhibition, in which I participated with high relish. The waters at this place were still and shoal, and flowed over a bed of gravel just beneath a rocky rapid: in this eddy shoal were a number of little gravelly pyramidal hills, whose summits rose almost to the surface of the water, very artfully constructed by a species of small cray-fish (Cancer macrourus) which inhabited them: here seemed to be their citadel, or place of retreat for their young, against the attacks and ravages of their enemy, the gold-fish: these in numerous bands, continually infested them, except at short intervals, when small detachments of veteran cray-fish sallied out upon them, from their cells within the gravelly pyramids, at which time a brilliant fight presented: the little gold-fish instantly fled from every side, darting through the transparent waters like streams of lightning; some even sprang aabove the surface, into the air, but all quickly returned to the charge, surrounding the pyramids as before, on the retreat of the cray-fish; in this manner the war seemed to be continual.
The gold-fish is about the size of the anchovy, nearly four inches long, of a neat slender form; the head is covered with a salade of an ultramarine blue, the back of a redish [sic] brown, the sides and belly of a flame, or of the colour of a fine red lead; a narrow dusky line runs along each side, from the gills to the tail; the eyes are large, with the iris like burnished gold. This branch of Broad River is about twelve yards wide, and has two, three and four feet depth of water…"
Travels of William Bartram, William Bartram, 1791. P61 of the Dover 1955 republication.

Has anyone here seen such an event? Was Bartram really seeing what he thought he saw? Is the mound he describes more likely a chub nest? Do cyprinids really tear up after crayfish eggs in chub/crayfish mounds, and do the crayparents burrow in the mounds to defend them? Any guesses as to the actual species the "gold-fish" is?
Matt Knepley
"No thanks, a third of a gopher would merely arouse my appetite..."

#2 Isaac Szabo

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 04:38 PM

Interesting story. To me it sounds like chub mounds. Perhaps he misinterpreted what he was seeing. Maybe he saw crayfish nearby and made assumptions. If you don't already know what's really going on, it would probably seem much more likely for crayfish to build the mounds than fish. I've never heard of crayfish building gravel mounds in streams, though. Also, from my experience with snorkeling, what you can see from above the water is really not a very good representation of what is actually going on underwater. Michael would probably have a good guess for which species of minnow the "gold fish" might be.

#3 Guest_fritz_*

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 04:39 PM

yes to the chub nest and most likely yellowfin shiners. But really cool reading and thanks for posting it

#4 Guest_Subrosa_*

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 04:51 PM

Since the female incubates the eggs on the swimmerets on the underside of her tail Crayfish don't need to build nests. Some of the more terrestrial burrowing species build "chimneys" at the entrance to their burrows.

#5 Guest_Casper_*

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 05:44 PM

Pretty cool...
I agree with the above posters. Too bad he did not see a Chub at work. We could have time machined him some goggles. 1773... what a different sight he would have seen in many of our rivers. Most waters flowing clear and silt free i suspect, maybe even the mighty Tennessee. Put me in the time machine too.
I read some travels of David Starr Jordan. The Days of a Man... it is available online. Volumn 2...
When he looked at letters he saw halos of color. Synesthesia.

#6 Michael Wolfe

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Posted 04 April 2014 - 07:10 PM

Hey, Matt. As a Georgian and a fish lover I am very familiar with this passage. It is commonly interpreted as a Nocomis mound and yellowfin shiners in full color and a misunderstanding of crayfish behaviour.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. - Benjamin Franklin

#7 olaf

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 02:53 PM

I've spent a ton of time reading old travel and nature writings from the 1500s to early 1900s, looking for fishy tidbits. It's sometimes fun and sometimes maddening trying to figure out what fishes they really saw.
I'm usually searching for suckers, gar and bowfin. Some of the early descriptions are tantalizing but so fantastic that no more than a guess at what they meant is possible. Other times it seems very clear what they meant, and then it turns out to be a bad description of something else entirely.
The early travelers in what's now Canada spent a lot of ink describing the catching and eating of "carp," 200+ years before any carp arrived on this continent, and it's generally easy to just substitute various sucker species depending where they were, but it's sometimes drum and other times it's probably mooneye or goldeye. So-called pike in some old writings about the Mississippi are actually gar.
More than once I've been excited at a description that seems like it might end up being an early reference to gar or bowfin, only to discover a little further that they're describing a snake or turtle, which they often lumped in with fish.
If only every fish was as easy to recognize in old writings as the paddlefish.
It's unfortunate that not all the writers thought to record the fishes they saw with as much color and energy as Bartram. Even worse, most of the non-biologists ignored fish, or at least failed to give any detail at all, just saying "there were many fish there" or "the natives eat the fish of this river" or "large shiny fish."
I've been compiling these for years with a plan to eventually put them together in a book or something. I've definitely got Bartram in my file, but I should go back and re-read it as I don't remember that passage. I might have looked at it when I was focused solely on finding mentions of suckers.
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#8 mattknepley

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 04:23 PM

Thanks, everybody. I thought it was pretty neat; glad you guys did, too. Thanks for helping me puzzle it out.

Olaf, I think your project would make a great book. You have a good point on the description issues. The very next paragraph after the one I posted (most of it, anyway) Bartram describes a 15 pound "salmon trout" that was speared by one of the Native Americans. I'm pretty sure that there were no salmon, or trout, in that stretch of water. My guess is it was a lmb, as they were called "trout" in the south by some early European arrivals to North America and their descendants, and lmb's species name is "salmoides" for this reason. (Tip of the hat to Fritz for that info...) Other than its weight, he gives no description of it, save that it was seen laying up under a bank. Think 15 lbs. is an exaggeration? It's certainly not impossible, but likely?
Matt Knepley
"No thanks, a third of a gopher would merely arouse my appetite..."

#9 olaf

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Posted 05 April 2014 - 04:39 PM

There's virtually no fish (of those big enough to harvest for food or sport, anyway) on this continent that hasn't been called a "trout" at some point, and many non-trout still are called trout in some areas of the US. I once started making a list of them. I'll have to see if I can find it. One of my favorites is "cypress trout" for bowfin, one of the least trout-like fish there is. I've also seen at least one example of trout being called some kind of bass. I need to try to dig up that reference.
(Edit: Forgot to add that bowfin are also known by some as "cypress bass.")
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#10 Guest_Irate Mormon_*

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Posted 14 April 2014 - 07:11 PM

This is available as a PDF for those who are interested.

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