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A most interesting fish

An Outdoor View

Posted: March 2, 2012 - 10:22am

Question: What fish that's native to the Kenai River was featured in Charles Dickens' first novel?

The Dolly Varden char is native to the Kenai. Dolly Varden, a woman known for wearing brightly colored dresses, was a character in "Barnaby Rudge," a Dickens novel. Her name was the origin of the name for a char known for wearing brightly colored fins and skin, the fish called Dolly Varden. But Dolly Varden isn't the answer. Dicken's first novel was "The Pickwick Papers," in which Samuel Pickwick was said to have published a paper about the tittlebat, a fish native to the Kenai and the subject of this column.

Tittlebat is another name for the threespine stickleback. These abundant fish can be found in marine, brackish and fresh waters of the Northern Hemisphere along both coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Scattered populations inhabit Arctic coastal areas and the inland seas of Europe. You won't find them in record books or taxidermy shops. An adult Gasterosteus aculeatus measures only 2 to 3 inches long, but its importance is all out of proportion to its size.

For fish-eating birds and prey fish -- including trout and salmon -- sticklebacks are an important forage fish. For scientists, they may be the most studied of all vertebrates. The threespine stickleback is a model species in several fields, including ecology, animal behavior and developmental genetics. For some years, it's been used to explore the causes of speciation -- the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. Some studies indicate that adaptations have occurred in only 10 years. Scientists studying the sticklebacks of the Cook Inlet watershed have developed the most extensive stickleback database in the world.

Roughly put, there are two forms of threespine sticklebacks: marine and freshwater. Marine threespine sticklebacks are anadromous -- they migrate from saltwater into freshwater streams to spawn. The other kind remains in fresh water lakes and streams. Marine sticklebacks usually remain close to shore, but have been found as far as 500 miles offshore.

Not surprisingly, the threespine stickleback has three spines on its back. It has no scales. The marine type wears armor plates. The freshwater type is thought to have evolved from the marine type since the last Ice Age, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

A breeding male stickleback "colors up" by developing a red or orange belly and iridescent-blue irises. He builds a golf-ball-sized nest of sand and vegetation, gluing it together with a mucus-like substance he excretes from his kidneys. When the nest is ready, he ventures out to find an egg-carrying female. Upon finding one, he does a little zig-zag dance, then leads her to his nest and urges her to enter it. Willing females -- he might entice several -- enter the nest and deposit from 100 to 150 eggs. That done, the male drives off the female and fertilizes the eggs.

During the eggs' 6- to 10-day incubation period, the male guards them, cleans them and defends them from intruders until they hatch and the fry grow large enough to fend for themselves.

You'll find several videos on the Internet that show this feisty little fish in action. For spending a snowy March day indoors, I highly recommend the tittlebat.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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