Master Naturalists: In the animal world, the hunter becomes the hunted
By Paul and Mary Meredith
March 6, 2014 at midnight
Updated March 5, 2014 at 9:06 p.m.
If you have ever night-hunted for flounder on coastal bay flats or in the Laguna Madre, as Paul did in his youth, another hunter - flat needlefish - is a familiar sight, flashing silver near the water's surface.
They are there hunting small fish and shrimp in the shallows and are attracted to fishing lights, individually and occasionally in large schools.
These are a serious piscivore, a carnivorous fish, found in tropical/temperate waters around the world. Long and thin, having long, narrow jaws almost like a beak full of sharp teeth, they are formidable predators. Drifting in shallows, they employ a sideways sweep of the head to snatch unwary prey.
Oddly enough, before they mature, their upper jaw is one-half the lower jaw's length. During that period they do not hunt. They consume plankton drifting near the Gulf's surface as their food source.
Mature needlefish measure 27 to 28 inches. The Texas record catch, reported to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on July 3, 1994, weighed 2.75 pounds and measured 38.94 inches from the back of the head to the tip of the tail.
Flat needlefish are often confused with a distant cousin, the garfish. Scientifically, flat needlefish (Ablennes hians) was first described and classified by French zoologist and ichthyologist (studier of fish) Achille Valenciennes in 1846 and reported in "Histoire naturelle des poissons" (Natural History of Fish).
Are they edible?
Yes and no. They do not have a lot of edible flesh, and they have a lot of bones, but the sweet, delicate-tasting filets are boneless. Traditionally, their market has been limited because of the flesh's light green tint, and the bones turn bright green when cooked. In the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico, they are a delicacy, sold fresh for frying or grilling, salted or smoked.
Another way to eat a needlefish
Mike Mauldin, a fellow Texas master naturalist, is a phenomenal nature photographer. At our last chapter meeting, Mike shared a picture of an osprey with Paul. Technically, the picture was great; his telephoto shot brought a bird 100 yards away, up close and personal.
What was really neat was the fish that the bird was starting to eat was a pretty good-sized adult needlefish. What was even better was how the bird ate the fish. As seen in the picture above, the osprey is clutching the fish with one talon and reaching into its mouth.
Mike described how the bird did not eat the fish's flesh. Instead, over the next half hour, the osprey pulled out and consumed the fish's innards - tongue, throat, stomach, digestive tact, etc. - 2 inches at a time. Then, it discarded the head and emptied out the body. That is one strange way to eat a fish.
Sources: htdocs\fishbase\country\CountrySpeciesSummary.php, on line 235; wild-facts.com; tpwd.state.tx.us; Multilingual illustrated guide to the world's commercial warmwater fish. By Claus Frimodt, 1949
Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at email@example.com.