Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis)

Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Photo

Halibut are related to flounders and other flatfish. Pacific halibut are the largest members of the Family Pleuronectidae.  They are found near the continental shelf in the northern Pacific Ocean and range from California north to the Chukchi Sea and from the Gulf of Anadyr, Russia south to Hokkaido, Japan. Halibut live on or near the bottom of the ocean and prefer water temperatures ranging from 37.4 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3⁰ to 8⁰C).

Halibut and their relatives are flattened laterally and swim sideways with both eyes on one side of the body. They have diamond-shaped bodies and are more elongated than most flat fishes. The width of the fish is approximately one-third its length. A halibut’s scales are small and are embedded in the skin, making the fish feel smooth to the touch. The top side of a halibut’s body is gray to olive- brown or nearly black and is mottled with numerous spots, allowing the fish to blend in with a sandy or muddy bottom and providing it camouflage from predators and prey. The bottom side of a halibut is white. The eyes of a halibut are on the dark side of the fish. Nearly all halibut are right-eyed which means the eyes are on the upper, dark side or the right side of the fish. Approximately one in 20,000 halibut is left-eyed with the eyes and dark pigment on the left side of the body. The dorsal fin extends from near the eyes to the base of the tail, and the anal fin begins just behind the anus and ends at nearly the same point opposite the dorsal fin. The mouth extends to the middle of the lower eye, and the tail is broad and symmetrical and lacks a fork. The lateral line arches high over the pectoral fin and is a characteristic that easily distinguishes a halibut from an arrowtooth flounder, a species that looks much like a halibut but has a nearly straight lateral line. Pacific halibut can reach 8 ft. (2.4 m) in length and weigh more than 500 lbs. (230 kg).

Most male halibut are sexually mature at age eight, while females begin to mature when they are 12 years old. They reproduce at depths of 300 to 1500 ft. (91 -457 m), and spawning takes place in the winter from November through March. Males randomly release sperm while females release eggs, and fertilization happens by chance. A female halibut may release a few thousand to four million eggs, depending on the size of the fish. Fertilized eggs hatch in approximately 15 days, and the larvae drift with the deep ocean currents. In the Gulf of Alaska, the larvae drift in a counter clockwise direction along the coast. As the larvae mature, they rise in the water column until they ride the surface currents to shallower coastal waters. When they hatch, larvae swim in an upright position with eyes on both sides of their head. When they are approximately an inch long, the left eye migrates over the snout to the right side of the head, and the color on the left side fades to white. When they are six months old, halibut settle onto the sea floor, where the dark coloration on the side with their eyes helps camouflage them.

Young Pacific halibut are very migratory and migrate in a clockwise direction throughout the Gulf of Alaska. As they age, halibut tend to become less migratory, but mature fish do migrate to deeper water in the winter to spawn and to shallower water in the summer to feed.

Halibut feed on plankton during their first year, and juveniles between the ages of one and three years old eat euphausiids (krill) and small fish. As they grow, halibut become more dependent on fish, and larger halibut eat herring, sand lance, capelin cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, flounders, and smaller halibut. They also eat octopus, clams, and crabs. Halibut usually sit on the bottom, but they will swim up in the water column to feed on salmon. A halibut will eat nearly any fish or organism it can catch.

Female halibut grow faster and reach a much larger size than male halibut. Males rarely grow larger than three feet in length (1 m) and weigh a maximum of 60 lbs. (27 kg), while females may reach over 6 ft. (2 m) in length and weigh over 500 lbs. (230 kg). Halibut growth rates vary depending on location, food availability and other conditions. As they grow longer, their weight increases, but the relationship between length and weight is not linear. The relationship between total length (L, in inches) and weight (W, in pounds) for all species of fish can be expressed by the equation: W=cLb. The constant “b” is close to 3.0 for all species of fish, but the constant “c” varies among species. For halibut, c = 0.00018872 and b = 3.24. By applying this equation, a 58-inch-long (150 cm) halibut weighs approximately 100 lbs. (45 kg).

According to scientific research, the size of Pacific halibut at a particular age has changed over time. The average length and weight of halibut in every age class increased from the 1920s to the 1970s but has decreased since then. For example, 12-year-old halibut are now three-quarters the length and one-half the weight they were in the 1980s. The reasons for these changes in size over time are unknown, but possible causes include competition with other species or with other halibut, climate effects on growth or survival, or effects of fishing and size limits.

The oldest recorded male and female halibut were 55 years old.  Except for man, adult halibut have few natural predators. They are sometimes eaten by marine mammals and sharks, but they are rarely eaten by other fish.

_________________________________________________________________________

Next week, I will describe commercial and sport fishing for halibut in Alaska, and I will attempt to explain how halibut is managed.

If you are interested in true crime tales from Alaska, sign up below for my free, monthly newsletter.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

 

 

Fish

I admit I love fish. I grew up in Kansas, and every summer, my family took a vacation somewhere. I always wanted to go to the ocean. I learned to snorkel and SCUBA dive, so I could escape the noisy world and enjoy the peace beneath the surface of the ocean where I would drift and watch the beautiful reef fish. I studied marine biology as an undergraduate and received a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology, with the emphasis on “fish.” I am telling you this to explain how excited I am about my next series of posts because they are all about fish!

Every time I put on my face mask and fins and jump in the water, I have an  identification card or book on hand, so when I get back to shore, I can identify any fish I didn’t recognize. These charts are great, and I can usually find laminated ones I can get wet. The problem with identification charts and books, though, is they never provide enough information. I want to know the fish’s life cycle, its food habits, and where it fits in the complex coral reef ecosystem. I want to know more about it than just its name.

When I decided to write about North Pacific fish in Alaskan waters, I knew I wanted to start with the Pacific halibut. The halibut is an economically valuable species both to commercial and sport fishermen in Alaska, so I thought there had to be a book about Pacific halibut biology, habits, migration, and distribution, but I could find no such book. There are books on halibut fishing, and I have a book about halibut management, but I want to know about the fish, not about how it’s caught or its commercial significance. I felt as if I was looking at an identification card. I could identify and name the fish, but I wanted more.

With the help of Google, I’ve gathered bits and pieces about halibut biology from the Internet and from my fish books, and next week, I will tell you what I have learned. After halibut, I will tackle salmon and a few other important commercial and sport species. My husband informed me that not everyone is as enamored with fish as I am, so I promise not to overdose you on the subject. We’ve just started our summer bear-viewing and sport fishing season, so I will occasionally interrupt my fish posts to write about our adventures.

I will close this post with a photo of the sweet, little fawn I saw in our yard a few days ago. It is a definite “ahh” moment.

Oh yes, and if you are interested in reading true crime stories from Alaska, sign up below for my free, monthly newsletter.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Water Hemlock and Poison Hemlock

Water Hemlock

Botanists consider water hemlock the most poisonous plant in North America. Just a bite of the root will kill a human.

Both water and poison hemlock grow in Alaska, and both are deadly poisonous. Both species inhabit wet areas such as marshes, streams, and moist meadows. Water hemlock grows to a height of two to six feet, and poison hemlock reaches three to eight feet in height. Water hemlock has alternate, compound, oval leaflets with saw-toothed margins. The leaves of poison hemlock are lance-shaped with saw-toothed edges. Both species have small, lacy, white flowers arranged in umbrella-like clusters. The stems of the plants are hollow. The roots are tuberous and chambered and contain a yellow, oily, foul-smelling liquid.

Water Hemlock

The yellow, oily substance found in the roots is circutoxin, and it is present in all parts of the plant. When ingested, circutoxin depresses the respiratory system. Symptoms begin to appear within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and include salivation followed by diarrhea, severe stomach distress, and convulsions. Without treatment, death occurs within eight hours of ingestion, and even if a person survives hemlock poisoning, she may suffer permanent damage to her central nervous system.

Hemlock poisonings in children are often caused when kids use the hollow stem of the plant to make whistles or use the stems as pea shooters. Adults are sometimes poisoned when they mistake the roots of hemlock as wild parsnip or add the leaves of the deadly plant to a pot herb mixture. Poisoning has also occurred when campers have mistaken the leaves of water hemlock as some sort of wild marijuana and have smoked them. Livestock can be poisoned by hemlock when grazing the plants or drinking water near where the plants grow. A poisoned animal may die in as little as fifteen minutes.

Poison Hemlock

In Maine, on October 5th, 1992, a 23-year old man and his 39-year old brother were foraging for wild ginseng, when the younger man collected several plants growing in a swampy area and took three bites from the root of one of the plants. His older brother took one bite of the same root. Within 30 minutes, the younger man began to vomit and suffer convulsions. It took 30 minutes for the brothers to walk out of the woods and call for help. Emergency personnel arrived within 15 minutes, and by that time, the younger brother was unresponsive and cyanotic with profuse salivation and intermittent seizures. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite medical intervention, he died three hours after ingesting the root. The older brother appeared normal when he reached the emergency room, but he began to have seizures and suffer delirium two hours after eating the root. He was eventually stabilized and survived the poisoning.

The suicide of Socrates in 399 BC is the most famous case of hemlock poisoning. Socrates was accused and found guilty of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and for “corrupting the youth.” He was sentenced to death and ordered to drink a cup of poison hemlock. Socrates was his own executioner. According to the story, Socrates cheerfully drank the poison, and surrounded by his students; he paced the room while he lectured to them. When he could no longer stand, he sat and soon died.

Nature is beautiful but sometimes deadly. Most of us don’t walk around the woods picking and nibbling on plant roots, but it is surprising to learn some plants are not even safe to touch. Here on Kodiak, I try not to touch cow parsnip or nettles because the first will cause a burn on my skin and the second will cause instant pain followed by hours of tingling, but I remind myself I could die from touching monkshood or hemlock. The toxicity of monkshood and hemlock make them wonderful weapons for a mystery writer.

Speaking of murder, sign up below for my free, monthly newsletter about true crime and murder in Alaska.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Monkshood

 

Witches smear monkshood root on their bodies and broomsticks, swallow a few drops of delirium-producing belladonna, and go flying.

Monkshood includes several species of plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. It ranges throughout Alaska and can be found in meadows, thickets, on rocky slopes, and along stream banks. It is common on Kodiak Island.

Monkshood plants grow two-to-six-feet tall, depending on the species and the habitat. The dark green leaves are palmate and lobed, and the vivid blue-purple flowers have five sepals, with one resembling a cylindrical helmet, or a “monk’s hood.”

All parts of the monkshood plant contain aconite, a deadly poison, and just three grains of the root will kill a hefty adult. Signs of aconite poisoning appear within less than an hour. Death occurs immediately if large doses of aconite are ingested, while smaller doses are usually fatal within two-to-six hours. Initial signs of aconite poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; followed by tingling, burning, and numbness in the mouth and face and burning in the abdomen. If the poisoning is severe, the numbness and tingling will spread to the arms and legs, followed by motor weakness in the limbs. Other symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, sweating dizziness, difficulty breathing, a headache, and confusion. Death is usually caused by ventricular arrhythmia or paralysis of the heart or respiratory center.

No definitive treatment for aconite poisoning exists, but if the poisoned individual can be rushed to a medical center, drugs such as atropine can be used to treat bradycardia, and activated charcoal can be given within one hour of ingestion to decontaminate the intestines. In the field, an individual who has ingested monkshood should immediately be given Syrup of Ipecac to induce vomiting and then evacuated to more advanced medical care. The ancient cure for aconite poisoning was, “brandy blended with flies that had suppered on monkshood.” Unfortunately, this cure is not practical for most of us.

As I mentioned, all parts of the monkshood plant are poisonous. The roots are the most toxic, and ingestion of the roots or any part of the plant is extremely dangerous, but poisoning can also occur just by picking the leaves without wearing gloves. Aconitine toxin is easily absorbed through the skin, and when this happens, there are no gastrointestinal symptoms. Tingling starts at the point where the toxin was absorbed and spreads to the arm and shoulder before affecting the heart.

Probably the most common cause of monkshood poisoning is accidental ingestion of some part of the plant. It looks much like and grows next to edible wild geraniums, and the root of the monkshood plant has been mistaken for a parsnip. In 2000, a medical examiner listed aconite poisoning as the cause of a suicide. On July 30th, 2004, Canadian actor Andre Noble died after a camping trip when he was believed to have accidentally eaten monkshood, and in 2008, an individual died four hours after eating a few monkshood flowers.

Various cultures have used monkshood as a medicine. It has been given as a heart and nerve sedative, a pain reliever, and a fever reducer, but the problem with using monkshood as a medication is that safe doses of aconite are rarely effective, and effective doses are lethal.

Many cultures used monkshood as arrow poisons. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people, the first inhabitants of Kodiak Island, concocted a poison made from the roots of monkshood to tip the darts and spears they used to hunt humpback and fin whales.

I explored the toxic effects of Monkshood in my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, but I am hardly the first author to use this plant as a murder weapon. Monkshood is mentioned in Greek mythology, and Shakespeare refers to it in Henry IV Part II. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rudolph Bloom commits suicide with an overdose of aconite, and monkshood has been used as a murder weapon in TV shows such as Rizzoli and Isles, NCIS, Dexter, and American Horror story. In episode seven of the second season of the Game of Thrones, an assassin applies monkshood (or wolf’s bane) to his dart.

Next week, I will explore the poisonous attributes of water hemlock, a plant common along streams on Kodiak Island.

Sign up for my free newsletter about true crime stories from Alaska, and I will send  you my latest edition about a woman who was living with her three fiances and was accused of killing one of them.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Baneberry

A baneberry is a perfect, beautiful, little berry but it is also deadly poisonous. “Bane” is defined as a thing that harms, interferes with, or destroys the welfare of something, and bane can also mean poison. It takes only six baneberries to kill an adult human.

Baneberries grow in moist, shady areas, and on dry slopes. On Kodiak, they are mostly found in the woods, often growing near salmonberry bushes. Baneberry plants grow 2 to 3 ½ ft. high and have large, lobed, coarsely toothed leaves. In the early summer, small, white flowers bloom on the plant, and then later in the summer, the plants produce round, red or white berries. Each berry is attached to a separate, short, thick stalk. The berries are either round or oblong and are very glossy. The plants are beautiful and are sometimes used for landscaping.

All parts of the baneberry plant are poisonous. According to old folklore, it is safe to eat any berry birds can eat, but baneberries prove this saying false. Birds can safely consume baneberries while we cannot. Luckily, baneberries taste extremely bitter, so if you do pop one in your mouth, you will probably spit it out in seconds, and you would be very unlikely to eat enough berries to do you serious harm. We once had a guest eat a baneberry, and several minutes later, he asked what the shiny, red berries were and said they tasted terrible. We kept a close eye on him, but he suffered no ill effects from his baneberry experience.

The first symptoms of baneberry toxicity include blistering and burning of the mouth and throat. These are followed by dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and death by cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis. The toxicity of the baneberry is caused by the chemical ranunculin. Ranunculin releases protoanemonin whenever the plant is damaged, such as by chewing. Protoanemonin is a skin irritant and causes blistering of the skin. If the berry is ingested, it has a similar effect on the mucous membranes of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines as it did on the skin. Eventually, it affects the respiratory system and the heart.

Native Americans used the baneberry as a medicinal but were well aware of its toxic properties. Various tribes used the baneberry root to treat menstrual cramps, postpartum pain, and menopausal symptoms. Cheyenne Indians used an infusion of baneberry leaves to increase a mother’s milk supply, and they used the berry itself to induce vomiting. Some tribes applied the juice of the baneberry to the tips of their arrows to make their arrowheads even more deadly.

I could find no reports of baneberries being used to murder someone, either in the real world or in literature. They would make a great murder weapon in one of my novels, but they would have to be sweetened and perhaps added to other berries to convince one of my characters to eat them.

Next week, I’ll investigate the properties of beautiful monkshood.

If you would like to sign up for my free, monthly newsletter, you can do that on the below form. Sign up soon, and I will send you my latest newsletter, “The Seductress.” I have had many positive comments on this newsletter, and most can be boiled down to what one reader said, “Wow!” “The Seductress” is the true tale of a woman with three fiancés who was arrested and tried for killing one of them. I should also mention that at the time of the murder, the woman was a stripper, but by the time she was arrested, she had earned her masters degree, married a doctor, and started a family. This is a story you don’t want to miss!

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Poisonous Plants

Deadly Baneberries

I have always been fascinated by poisonous plants. I write murder mysteries, and what better murder weapon than a toxin from a naturally occurring plant? We have several poisonous plants here on Kodiak Island, and over the next few weeks, I will describe a few of them.

In the summer, most of Kodiak Island is covered by a dense jungle-like growth. We have beautiful wildflowers and plants bearing delicious berries, including salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, and others. Rhubarb and raspberries planted by early settlers remain abundant in some areas.

Cow Parsnip (Wild Celery)

There are a few plants here, though, that are not so innocent. The sap and outer hairs of cow parsnip, locally called pushki and one of the most prolific plants on the island, contains the chemical furanocoumarin which causes an extreme sensitivity to light. If a person comes into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip plant, within a few days, he will likely develop a red, itchy rash and blisters on the area the sap touched. These blistering sores last for days or weeks. I often use a weed eater to clear vegetation around the house, and I’ve learned the hard way not to cut cow parsnip with a weed eater because when the sap flies from the plant and splatters my hands and face, I know I will have painful, ugly, red welts in a few days. Some people are not allergic to cow parsnip, and others are so allergic they will react if they merely touch the stems or leaves of the plant.

Nettles

Nettles are another troublesome plant on Kodiak. Fine, stinging hairs cover the leaves of a nettle. Some researchers believe formic acid causes the hairs to sting, while others attribute the sting to a histamine compound. If you touch the leaves of a mature plant, you will feel a prick, much like a wasp’s sting. The pain may last for a few hours but will eventually subside. Nettles lose their sting when cooked and taste delicious, much like spinach. Nettles also have many medicinal applications and may be used to ease sore muscles and joint inflammation

While these plants can be irritating and painful and make walking through the dense vegetation on Kodiak a challenge, neither cow parsnip nor nettles will kill a human. Over the next few weeks, I will cover the deadly toxic plants we have in our area and give accounts of cases where they have been used both in literature and in the real world.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

I mentioned last week in my post about sea stars that beaches on Kodiak teem with an abundant variety of brightly colored sea stars. Sadly, though, sea stars are not as abundant here as they were a few years ago. I took a walk on the beach yesterday and was alarmed by how few sea stars I saw. Those I did see looked healthy, but the vast majority were wiped out by a deadly virus.

 In June 2013, sea stars along the Pacific coast of the United States began dying in large numbers. Die-offs of sea stars have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s but never of this magnitude. Within just three years, millions of sea stars from California to Alaska died from a disease called sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). Sea stars with SSWS develop white lesions in the ectoderm quickly followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions which leads to fragmentation of the body and death. Biologists estimated 95% of some sea star populations were decimated by SSWS. While most species of sea stars were affected by SSWS, ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) were especially hard hit.

 The syndrome was first noticed in ochre stars in June 2013 along the coast of Washington state. In August 2013, divers reported a massive die-off of sunflower stars just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. In October and November 2013, large numbers of dead sea stars were noted in Monterrey, California, and by mid-December, SSWS had reached southern California. In the summer of 2014, the disease had spread to Mexico and parts of Oregon. SSWS was first reported in Alaska in Kachemak Bay in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that sea stars began dying in large numbers in Alaska.

 Biologists are certain sea stars are dying from a virus, but when they isolated the virus, they realized this virus was present in preserved museum samples taken from as far back in the 1940s. They believe some other factor such as increased water temperature or a change in pH is stressing seas stars and allowing an otherwise dormant virus to rage through their populations. Researchers noted an increase in ocean water temperature preceded the outbreak of SSWS, and in areas where the water temperature rose the most, the disease was more widespread. To test the theory that increased water temperature played a big role in the breakout of the disease, scientists placed sea stars in aquarium tanks ranging in temperature from 54 degrees to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The results were clear, the hotter the tank, the more quickly the sea stars succumbed to wasting.

The drastic reduction in sea star populations is evident on Kodiak Island, and biologists worry how the loss of sea stars will affect the intertidal community. Sea stars are considered a keystone species, important to maintaining diversity in the marine environment. Sea stars eat mussels and sea urchins whose numbers could now explode and decrease biodiversity in intertidal and subtidal communities.

 Scientists consider the recent outbreak of SSWS the single largest, most geographically widespread disease ever recorded, and as ocean temperatures keep rising, they fear the outbreak of the disease will continue.

As always, if you would like to sign up to receive my free, monthly newsletter about true crime in Alaska, you can do that here.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

Sea Stars of Alaska

Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

Visitors to our lodge are often surprised by the large number of brightly colored sea stars inhabiting the low-tide zone on Kodiak Island. Sea stars are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest and are critical to the health of intertidal and subtidal communities. Scientists have identified more than 120 species of sea stars in Alaska, including the sunflower sea star, one of the largest sea stars in the world.

Sunflower Sea Star

Sea stars are often called starfish, but since they aren’t fish, biologists prefer the name sea star. Sea stars belong to the phylum Echinodermata. Other echinoderms include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and brittle stars. Echinoderms usually have pentamerous radial symmetry, meaning the body can be divided into five parts around a central axis. This five-parted symmetry is easy to see in a sea star with five arms, but it is also apparent if you look at the bottom of a sand dollar or the pen of a sea urchin. Some sea stars have more than five arms. A sunflower sea star has twenty arms, but the animal is still divided into five equal parts around the central disk.

Sea Stars are flattened in appearance and may range in size from 1 inch (2.54 cm) to over a yard (1 meter) in width. A sea star has an internal skeleton which is somewhat flexible. The skeleton consists of small calcareous plates bound together with connective tissue. Sea stars may look rigid and sedentary, but the connective tissue between the plates allows them to bend to attack prey, flee predators, and right themselves when they are turned upside down.

Madreporite
Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

A sea star’s anus is in the center of the top side, or the aboral surface of the animal. A circular madreporite is located just off center on the aboral surface, and this madreporite is a critical part of the circulation system of the sea star. Instead of a circulatory system, a sea star has a water vascular system, and the madreporite acts as a trap door through which water can move in and out in a controlled manner. The mouth of a sea star is located in the center of its underneath or oral surface. Open furrows containing tube feet extend from the mouth along the length of each leg.

Sea stars do not have eyes, but they have eyespots that can detect light at the tip of each arm. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown some species of sea stars move toward light while others move away from the light. Neurosensory cells which are sensitive to both touch and chemical tastes cover the surface of a sea star and are particularly dense in the suckers of the tube feet. Many species of sea stars are covered by clusters of tiny, calcareous pincers. These tiny pincers deter predators and keep the surface of the sea star free of parasites and debris. Also on the surface, thin-walled gills protrude between the calcareous plates and serve to exchange respiratory gases and excrete liquid wastes.

Oral Surface

The internal anatomy of a sea star includes the water vascular system, digestive tract, reproductive organs, and nervous system. The water vascular system uses muscles and hydraulics to power a sea star’s tube feet. The tube feet not only allow a sea star to move but are used to grasp prey, and the combined force of numerous tube feet is strong enough to pry apart a clam shell. Most seas stars move very slowly, and their pace is measured in inches per hour, but giant sunflower sea stars can travel at a speed of two feet per minute.

The mouth of a sea star opens into two stomachs connected to paired, lobed organs called pyloric caeca. The pyloric caeca extend into each arm and aid in the digestion of food. Sea stars are either male or female, and their reproductive organs, or gonads, lie between the pyloric caeca in each arm. In the spring, sea stars broadcast either eggs or sperm through pores in their arms into the water where chance fertilization occurs. Sea stars have no brain or central nervous system, but they have a nerve ring in the central disk connected to radial nerves running the length of each arm. The radial nerves are connected to a diffuse network of nerve cells scattered throughout the skin. Sea stars have the ability to regenerate lost arms.

Sea stars utilize a range of habitats and may be found from the shoreline to depths greater than 13,450 ft. (4,100 m). Sea stars consume a wide variety of prey, including sponges, snails, clams, mussels, sea cucumbers, barnacles, anemones, scallops, fishes, and even other sea stars. Some species of sea stars feed on plankton, while other species prefer dead organisms. Sea stars have few predators and are believed to have a lifespan of only a few years.

Next week, I will post about sea star wasting syndrome, a devastating disease that has killed millions of sea stars in the last few years from California to Alaska.

If you would like to receive my free monthly newsletter detailing stories of true crime from Alaska, you can sign up here.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.

 

 

 

 

 

Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs by Tony Ross

A year ago, I posted about my friend, Tony Ross, who is the Northcentral Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Tony and his colleagues had rescued an orphaned black bear cub, and he and his wife, Karin cared, for the cub until Tony could reintroduce the cub into the wild under the care of a foster mother. I loved that story and thought it was amazing, but this year, Tony and other Game Commission biologists did something even more incredible; they rescued four orphaned cubs. I will let Tony tell the story in his own words, and I hope if any of my readers have friends or relatives in Pennsylvania, you will encourage them to read Tony’s story.

_______________________________________________________________________

Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs

By

Tony Ross

(all photos by Tony Ross)

It’s that time of year again. Young animals are beginning to show up all over the place and sooner or later, something will happen to the mother and the chase begins. And as I’m writing this, two baby squirrels are sitting in a pen in our kitchen. On April 12, our office (Pennsylvania Game Commission) received a call about four black bear cubs on the loose. The mother got hit by a vehicle and was found dead in a stream. Often, the cubs will be hanging on or around mom but the stream was much deeper and faster than normal so that didn’t happen.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Steve Brussese and I arrived on scene at the same moment. The caller pointed out the dead sow in the creek and mentioned he saw four small cubs on the other side of the creek going upstream. Steve and I split up as I walked up stream and he drove along the road and checked for any access to the other side of the stream. Neither of us saw anything. As I made it back to the scene, Steve had the sow out of the stream and loaded on his vehicle. We talked with the caller and asked him to call our office if he observes the cubs again.

Steve and I drove downstream to find an area to cross the fast-flowing creek. We found an area about 1/2 mile downstream. However, before we got together to start the trek, the office called us on the radio telling us the caller just observed the cubs going up a tree. We quickly got back in our vehicles and rushed back to the same spot. This time we saw three cubs up a tree on the other side of the creek. The caller was over there also. We had no choice but to wade across the creek.

Once we made it across the slippery rocks, the caller informed us the four cubs must have been hiding in a crawl space under the overhanging stream bank. We asked about the fourth cub and he stated it was still in that crawl space. As we all looked in the dark area, I noticed hair and immediately reached in and grabbed the cub with my gloved right hand. The cub was too large to fit through any openings in front of me so Steve came over and pulled out a rock that made the opening large enough to pull it through. I didn’t want the cub to pull away so I used my ungloved left hand. Small black bear cubs often are very naïve and don’t show any aggression towards humans until they reach about 10 lbs. Then, look out! This cub was about 8-10 lbs and was aggressive enough that he bit my hand. It didn’t break the skin but it sure produced a nice blood blister.

One down, three to go. We tried several things to get the three cubs down out of the tree but the cubs didn’t move on their own. Our attempts to get them down actually made them go up as high as they could. Our last option was to cut the tree. It worked but Steve and I and the three cubs got very wet in the process.

When we rescue orphaned cubs, we often have to keep them overnight at our homes before releasing them to one of our radio collared sows that are known to have cubs of their own. They become foster mothers. Fortunately, my wife is also an animal enthusiast so bringing home four black bear cubs was a delight for her. We kept each cub in its own pet carrier to make feeding easier. Together, we had to care for those cubs for 1 day and 2 nights. Feeding was a treat. Each bear had its own personality. From very naïve to very aggressive. The naïve one was the smallest of the group so it may have had to submit to its siblings causing it to be very submissive. The aggressive one was the one I pulled from out under the bank. He would bite, scratch and woof at you if you got near to him but once he tasted food, he calmed down for a short time. We finally just put his food in a container in his carrier and he lapped it up. Easier for him and both of us.

On Friday, I met Wildlife Conservation Officers Jason Wagner and Wayne Hunt who had collared sows in their districts, Wildlife Conservation Deputy Steve, and Information and Education Supervisor Doty McDowell. It was our intent to give two cubs to each of those collared sows. I split the four into two groups. The firs consisted of the two most timid cubs and the other were the two most aggressive.

The first group were let go with a sow that was still using her den as a retreat. Jason carried the two cubs in a backpack and dumped them at the opening of the den and both ran inside. Trail camera photos indicated she, her natural cubs and her foster cubs left the den area the next day.

The second group’s introduction was a bit different. This radio collared sow was on the move with her cubs so we had to get close enough to her to get her to put her cubs up a tree. Once Wayne located the sow in his district, it was time for all of us to get moving. It was only a couple hundred yards before we got close enough to get her to tree her cubs. Next step was to release the two more aggressive cubs up the same tree. As I held the bag open, Jason pulled out the most aggressive cub (I gave him my gloves before he put his hand in the backpack) and put him on the tree and he started to go up. We watched as he began to climb up but at about 10 feet he lost grip and fell back to the ground at my feet. I immediately grabbed him and as I was putting him on the tree he looked at me and in his usual attitude started woofing at me. In the meantime, Jason had gotten the other cub out of the bag and we left both of them go at the same time and up the tree they went. We got our stuff together quickly as their mother was watching us from not too far away and we wanted to get out of there quickly so she could be reunited with “all” of her cubs.

Terror in the Wilderness

I write wilderness mystery novels set in the remote, untamed wilderness of Alaska, and I also write a newsletter about true crime in Alaska. Recently, as I thought about a plot for my next novel, I decided I would draw pieces of my plot from the bizarre true crimes I write about in my newsletter. I then recalled a character from my past who was far more frightening than any fictional madman I could conjure in my imagination.

My husband and his family operated a remote hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula, and when my husband was just a boy, he and his family were terrorized by a crazy man who stalked the wilderness of the Alaska Peninsula and claimed he owned the area around Becharof Lake. Killer Bill, as he was called, once hiked into the hunting camp, threatened my father-in-law and then punched him, knocking him unconscious. Killer Bill served time in prison for this crime, and he also spent time in jail when he was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man in a bar. When released on probation, the judge warned Bill that as a condition of his parole, he could not carry a firearm. Killer Bill ignored the warning and carried a rifle everywhere he went.

Bill burned down the hunting camp my husband’s family owned, and when they rebuilt, they constructed tent frames, instead of cabins, hoping Killer Bill would find the tent frames less offensive. Bill responded by burning the tent frames.

One winter, the Alaska State Troopers found Killer Bill’s snow machine submerged in a river, and they assumed he’d fallen through the ice during the winter and had drowned, but they never found Bill’s body. Everyone wondered was he dead or still alive, terrorizing anyone who dared camp on the vast area of the Alaska Peninsula he considered his. On my first trip to Becharof in the late 1980s, my husband warned me to keep watch for an old man who might suddenly walk out of the woods.

“What,” I asked, “was I to do if I saw him hiking up to our camp?”

“I’m sure he won’t bother you,” my husband said, “but grab a rifle as soon as you see him, just to be safe.”

I never saw Killer Bill, and he was surely long dead by then, but every time we camped at Becharof, I worried less about the bears and wolves prowling the Peninsula outside my tent than I did about a strange, old man who might appear at any moment out of the mist.

Numerous rumors circulated about Killer Bill. A fish and game biologist told us that on several different occasions, Killer Bill had gone trapping during the winter with a partner, but when Bill returned in the spring, his trapping partners were never with him. Once, according to this biologist, troopers entered Bill’s cabin when he wasn’t there and found human remains in the cabin. They suspected Bill had eaten his trapping companions, but they were never able to find Bill and charge him with the crimes.

I can’t imagine anything more terrifying in the wilderness than a crazy man determined to do anything and kill anyone to protect what he believes is his. I plan to base a character in my next novel on Killer Bill, and I hope my readers will find my character as frightening as I found the specter of the real man.

If you would like to receive my free monthly newsletter about true crime in Alaska, please sign up below.

Mystery Newsletter

Sign Up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter about true crime in Alaska.