February notes

porcupine gnawings, worms on ice, and a strange and flabby fish

For lovers of good winter weather, February has been a difficult month, so far: Ridiculously mild temperatures, way too much rain, feeble ice, much too little good snow. Nevertheless, there have been some items of interest.

A Parks and Rec group charged on snowshoes up to Naked Man Lake, below the crest of Mt Troy on Douglas one day. We made a nice trail for some later-rising skiers, who headed up Troy itself and gave us a show as they swooped down. A couple of us weren’t quite up to charging uphill at the pace-setters rate, so we peeled off from the main group at a spot with a good overlook of part of Juneau. We perched in the snow for lunch and were entertained by a shrew, dashing madly over the top of the snow from one tree-well to another. Was it finding food there? Why was it running around in such exposed areas, instead of tunneling more safely under the snow?

On the way down, we noted a small spruce tree, maybe twenty feet tall, that had been totally de-barked. The entire trunk and the bases of all the branches were denuded. That must have been a particularly tasty tree or a desperate porcupine at work. I often see evidence of porcupines eating hemlock bark and spruce needles, but I don’t often see spruce bark as part of the diet.

On the Crow Hill Road on the way to up the Treadwell Ditch, we found numerous worms, very much alive, in and on the ice. They were small, only one or two inches long, and looked, to our ignorant eyes, like baby earthworms. Really? What was going on here? The Pacific Northwest is home to the famous glacier ice worms (related to earthworms), but those supposedly live only on our glaciers.

Some other folks had the good luck to find an unusual fish washed up on a local beach. This turned out to be a ragfish, which have been reported occasionally from other beaches in Southeast. Also, the remnants of one were salvaged from a sea lion near Outer Point. Ragfish live in the North Pacific, mostly in deep water apparently, and do not have a swim bladder, an organ that usually functions to adjust buoyancy. So what are these doing anywhere near the beaches? One researchers suggests that they may be brought by currents into shallower waters or are drawn to productive upwellings near shores.

Ragfish and friend. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Ragfish are very distantly related to perch and bass, but they are characterized by a skeleton that is mostly cartilage and flabby flesh. Juveniles look quite different from adults in body shape and fin shape, and adults have no body scales. A strange creature!

The biology of ragfish is poorly known. Females get to be larger than males, achieving lengths over two meters. They are thought to spawn at depths of two hundred meters or more, laying hundreds of thousands of small eggs at a time. Although the teeth are tiny, ragfish are predators of other fishes, squid, and jellyfish. In turn, they are preyed upon by sperm whales, sea lions, and tuna, and no doubt many others.