Fanged, face­less sea crea­ture that washed ashore has been iden­ti­fied

The Prince George Citizen - - SCIENCE - Lind­sey BEVER The Wash­ing­ton Post

Af­ter high winds and heavy rains brought by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, a mys­te­ri­ous sea crea­ture with fangs and no face washed up on the shore­line in south­west Texas – giv­ing the in­ter­net a chal­leng­ing task: to iden­tify it. Preeti Desai, so­cial me­dia man­ager at the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety, posted pic­tures of the crit­ter ear­lier this month on Twit­ter, ask­ing, “What the heck is this??”

Desai, who said she had ac­com­pa­nied con­ser­va­tion­ists as­sess­ing the dam­age from the storm, spot­ted the crea­ture on a beach in Texas City, out­side of Galve­ston. The in­ter­net gave its best guesses: A gulper eel. A “bloated” moray eel. No, an alien. “I fol­low a lot of sci­en­tists and re­searchers,” Desai told BBC News about her plea for an­swers on so­cial me­dia. “There’s such a great com­mu­nity of these folks that are very help­ful, es­pe­cially when it comes to an­swer­ing ques­tions about the world or iden­ti­fy­ing an­i­mals and plants.”

She said some­one sug­gested that she con­tact Kenneth Tighe, a bi­ol­o­gist with the Smith­so­nian Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory.

Tighe, an eel ex­pert, told Earth Touch News that the crea­ture was most likely a fang­tooth snake-eel, or Aplatophis chaulio­dus.

Fang­tooth snake-eels live in bur­rows 30 to 90 me­tres down in wa­ters stretch­ing from the Gulf of Mex­ico to French Guiana, “with only snout and eyes ex­posed, dart­ing to feed on other fishes and crus­taceans,” ac­cord­ing to FishBase, an on­line data­base for fish species.

Other pos­si­bil­i­ties? Bathyuro­con­ger vici­nus or Xeno­mys­tax con­groides.

“All three of these species oc­cur off Texas and have large fang-like teeth,” Tighe told Earth Touch News. “Too bad you can’t clearly see the tip of the tail. That would dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween the ophichthid and the con­grids.”

Desai told BBC News that she left the dead eel alone to “let na­ture take its course.”

She wrote in a post Sept. 8 on Audubon’s web­site that in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, she trav­eled to Hous­ton to help doc­u­ment “the ef­fects of the hur­ri­cane on birds and their habi­tats.”

“I joined Audubon Texas’s Coastal Con­ser­va­tion pro­gram man­ager, Victoria Vazquez, and coastal war­den, Dennis Jones, to visit some of the rook­ery islands off the coast of Galve­ston and as­sess the dam­age,” she wrote. “They wanted to take a look at things like how much land had been lost and how much plant cover was miss­ing due to be­ing up­rooted or washed away. Changes like these could af­fect the num­ber of species that will be able to nest on the habi­tat in the fu­ture.

“Audubon Texas and part­ner or­ga­ni­za­tions like Hous­ton Audubon col­lec­tively own or lease more than 170 coastal islands, some of which ap­pear and dis­ap­pear as cur­rents shift and waves wash over them. These islands, even when they’re no more than sand­bars, are supremely im­por­tant for many colo­nial wa­ter birds – birds that gather in groups – as they nest and breed dur­ing the spring and sum­mer months. Visit at the right time and you’ll find Amer­i­can Oys­ter­catch­ers, Brown Pel­i­cans, Least Terns, and more. (But be care­ful – birds are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble dur­ing nest­ing sea­son and no vis­i­tors are al­lowed on the islands from Fe­bru­ary through Au­gust.) Brown Pel­i­cans in par­tic­u­lar were at risk of ex­tinc­tion in the 1970s, and al­though they’ve made a come­back since then, their nest­ing areas (and those of many other species) are now in trou­ble due to ris­ing sea lev­els and stronger storms caused by cli­mate change. So it was a pos­i­tive that most of the chicks had fledged by the time Har­vey hit.”

Still, peo­ple on so­cial me­dia were more in­ter­ested in – and spooked by – the sea crea­ture she stum­bled upon while she was there.

Fang­tooth snake-eels live in bur­rows 100 to 300 feet down in wa­ters stretch­ing from the Gulf of Mex­ico to French Guiana.

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