Snakehead being studied at SFU

The elusive snakehead fish caught Friday morning in Central Park
The elusive snakehead fish caught Friday morning in Central Park's lower pond in Burnaby is shown off by Mike Beakes, a biology graduate student from SFU who volunteered for the search.
— image credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

The notorious snakehead fish caught in the lower pond at Burnaby's Central Park last week will soon be dissected by biologists at Simon Fraser University in an effort to solve a few mysteries.

The fish's equivalent of the inner ear bone will be analyzed to try to determine how long it's been in the pond, said SFU graduate biology student Michael Beakes, who is volunteering with the project.

The bone is laid down in daily increments, much like the rings of a tree, so the layers will be checked for any changes in chemistry that could indicate when it moved from its original home to the pond.

The invasive species is native to Asia and has no known predators in this part of the world. It is known to eat numerous native species, from fish to frogs and even ducklings and small dogs in the case of larger snakehead fish. It is sold in pet stores and Asian supermarkets.

Someone posted video of the fish in the pond shot on Mother's Day, and efforts to catch it ended on June 8 when it was scooped up in a net by a team that included staff from Ministry of Environment and the City of Burnaby, as well as numerous volunteers from SFU and the University of British Columbia.

Biologists' dissection of the 70-cm (two-foot-three-inches), 3.32 kg (7.3 pound) fish—which was still thawing Wednesday morning after being frozen following its capture and euthanization—will include an examination of its stomach contents.

"If it ate something real soon before it was captured we may be able to identify the contents and where in the food chain it's been feeding," he said.

It may be very difficult to tell what gender the fish is, Beakes said, and early indications are it's a northern snakehead. That's one of 30 species of snakehead and the type most commonly found invading areas of North America, even prompting officials in the state of Maryland to place a bounty on the fish in an effort to control the growing numbers.

Samples taken from the snakehead will be distributed to researchers at SFU and UBC as well as the Environment Ministry.

Once the dissection is complete, the biologists will do their best to put it back together—the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria wants to add it to their collection, Beakes said.

For student biologists like Beakes, the whole project has been history-making.

"Anytime there's an initial discovery of an invasive species ... there's a lot that you can learn from it. In that sense it's a very exciting opportunity."

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