Years ago, a good friend of mine was repairing a boat in a canal in Broad Channel. To better access the motor, he had one leg in the water. Boop, boop, boop… He felt something bumping into his leg. He kicked, assuming it was seaweed, but a second later… boop, boop, boop again!
He looked more closely and discovered the cutest little fish, almost perfectly round, not much bigger than a marble! Gary quickly caught it, and got in touch with me. At the time, I was managing the marine science lab at Beach Channel High School, and had dozens of tanks, many with native species to our area.
I had never seen this fish myself before, but we eventually learned that it was called a striped burrfish, or sometimes called a spiny boxfish (Chilomycterus schoepfii). That little guy grew to be one of the friendliest fish we ever had at the school, recognizing people and coming to the surface for a little affection.
The striped burrfish does have the ability to ‘inflate’ when stressed, but are in a different family than other pufferfish in this area such as the Northern Puffer (Sphoeroides maculatus)
The striped burrfish is a member of the porcupinefish family, owing to its fused front teeth and extremely sharp spines.
Those strong, fused front teeth allow this fish to consume all sorts of hard-shelled creatures, including barnacles, shellfish, hermit crabs and more. It can also tolerate a wide range of salinities; from the salty ocean to brackish tidal steams. He enjoys the waves of the ocean, but is more commonly found amongst seagrass beds. Thus, our burrfish thrives in our estuarine environment here in the Rockaways!
This summer, many of us have had direct experience with the burrfish, as members of the community found several throughout the summer washed up in the wrack. I found one during a morning walk, about eight feet away from the height of the tide at the moment (so it had clearly been out of the water for quite some time), and it was still alive! Its very sharp, erect spines make it unpleasant to handle, so I used a large clam to carry him beyond the crashing waves and away he swam.
As I pondered why there seemed to be so many more washing up this year than in the past, I thought it was a great chance to “think like a scientist.” All science starts with observations and questions, such as: “Why are more of these fish washing up on the beach?”
Next is the fun part: be creative, and posit as many explanations you can think of for your observation: Could the population of the burrfish in our area be increasing? Or is a change in the feeding habits of the fish, or in the habitats of their prey, causing the fish to come closer to shore? Are they avoiding an offshore predator whose population has increased? Is there some pollutant causing a behavioral change?
Your next step is to read, read, read! After a simple internet search to see if your question has already been answered, proceed to Google Scholar. There you will find the peer-reviewed work by researchers. (Note: if you have a friend making a dubious scientific claim, ALWAYS ask for the original peer-reviewed published paper as a source).
There actually isn’t a heck of a lot of research specifically on our little friend… I’m looking at you, future marine scientists!! What is your hypothesis about this (maybe?) increased number of striped burrfish sightings? How would you conduct an experiment to test one of the potential reasons for their increased ‘beachings?’
By Jennifer Porcheddu
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