First Canadian porcupine fish highlights Royal BC Museum rarities

‘Citizen science’ of reporting rare species advances research

Reaching excitedly into a water-filled container, Gavin Hanke, the Royal BC Museum’s curator of vertebrate zoology, carefully removes the body of poisonous porcupine fish and holds it proudly, water dripping from its razor-sharp quills.

Discovered for the first time in Canada on a Vancouver Island beach Oct. 5 – east of Jordan River – the sharp-spined fish has become an unlikely celebrity, wowing biologists, zoologists and the public with its unusual visit to the West Coast. The fish are normally found in temperate or tropical waters.

“It’s basically a puffer fish,” Hanke says. “They have tetrodotoxin so… you don’t want to eat one unless a licensed chef has prepared it.” Of the genus ‘diadon,’ the fish has a moveable spine and distinguishable mouth, it’s fused teeth give it the appearance of having a parrot’s beak in place of the simpler, pointed choppers found in most fish jaws.

READ ALSO: Hundreds of foreign species still washing up on B.C. coast, eight years after tsunami

The porcupine fish’s appearance on the West Coast – and reports of a second located on the same beach – is something Hanke chalks up to a “warm blob,” a surprisingly well-used term in the oceanography world for warm plumes of water that extend into typically colder zones. The ‘blobs’ are to thank for a number of rare specimens in the museum’s collection – in 2014 two surprising visitors – a trigger fish and a louvar – were discovered on Vancouver Island beaches.

To Hanke, these discoveries indicate that more non-native fish could be on their way to B.C. waters.

“We had one [warm blob] that ended in 2015 and now we have another … so if this is becoming the new norm, we could see a real change in diversity,” he says. “If it comes up two degrees, three degrees, this [porcupine fish] can survive here. It’s only a matter of time before populations get established.”

A porcupine fish discovered washed up near the Jordan River mouth likely moved north in a “warm blob” of water from its normal habitat of shallow temperate and tropical seas. Now the fish specimen is in the hands of the Royal BC Museum where it will be catalogued and preserved. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

And Hanke says the public, or ‘citizen scientists’ play a large part in tracking species. Even without a body, a picture, date and location of a discovered fish can be significant.

“There’s all kinds of other fish, shallow-water species that could easily make it north to us. It’s a matter of people finding them – someone going fishing and going ‘what is this?’” he says. “These fish weren’t found by scientists, they were found by every day people in B.C.

“So that’s a huge contribution. They have their eyes on the beach, cause I can’t be everywhere.”

Stepping further into the back rooms of the Royal BC Museum brings you face to face with an assortment of wild and wonderful critters – Canadian geese and pheasants stacked among shelves of regional fowl, a bright-eyed caribou draped in a utility blanket. In one room, rows and rows of jars filled with fish specimens line metal shelving more than ten feet high.

In the larger fish and shark storage room, Hanke puts on elbow-length rubber gloves to pulls the 2014 louvar and trigger fish from formaldehyde-filled vats, showing off their perfectly preserved fins and armor-like scales. The only thing missing is colour – the specimens seem to take on some of the rusted, stomach-churning orange of their formaldehyde environment.

The vat containing a Mako shark, brought into the museum last year, is cloudier. It’s filled with oil from the shark’s liver. The formaldehyde in the shark vats, says Hanke, has to be replaced more regularly as a result.

READ ALSO: New photos help identify mystery creature found on Peninsula beach

Hanke’s love for marine vertebrate started outside a Bristol pet store, where as a child, he watched a zebra cichlid swim the lengths of its tank. Fishtailing from an early career in pet trading to an extensive education in zoology, invasive species and a PhD in evolutionary biology, he now finds himself one of the region’s authorities on unusual fish.

A trigger fish found on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 2014 is one of many rare finds preserved at the Royal BC Museum. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

On a day to day basis Hanke could be studying anything from snail fish and cusk eels to Mola Mola and the aptly named ‘spiney eared assfish’ – a specimen that made headlines as much for its name as for its less than attractive appearance.

But he says it’s the the intertidal species and the unexciting, bottom-of the-food chain prey of B.C.’s sport fish that can really help identify climate change and habitat destruction.

One example is pricklebacks, a common intertidal fish.

“I figure when climate change hits us, it’s going to be the inter-tidal that gets hit the hardest because it will either warm up a lot more or dry out for longer [or] it might be wet and rainy,” he says. “Whatever extreme happens, it’s going to hit the inter-tidal really hard. A fish like this might be our first indicator.”

READ ALSO: Wildlife photography, orca exhibit coming soon to Victoria’s Royal BC Museum

The vast majority of the Royal BC Museum’s scaled specimens will never go on display for the public’s viewing, but as Hanke’s research proves, that’s only one aspect of the museum’s function.

“You’ve chemical signatures, DNA, presence and geography of the species present here in B.C. going back a hundred years or more,” he says. “They tell us what was here in the past [and] what’s here now and that allows us to detect change.

“The museum, in a sense, is a time machine.”



nina.grossman@blackpress.ca

Follow us on Instagram
Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

With local MLA Adam Olsen looking on, BC Greens leader Sonia Furstenau said a Green government would convert BC Ferries into a Crown corporation Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Green leader Sonia Furstenau promises to convert BC Ferries back into Crown corporation

Promise comes Monday afternoon with five days left in campaign

Police executed a search warrant at a residence on Nicol Street in September 2017 in relation to a murder investigation. John Albert Buchanan was charged with second-degree murder. (News Bulletin file)
Murder trial begins in case of man who was beaten and died in Nanaimo’s south end

John Albert Buchanan charged with second-degree murder after 2017 incident on Nicol Street

RCMP
Police appeal to ‘sense of right and wrong’ in fatal Campbell River assault

RCMP know of witnesses to Oct. 15 attack; want them to come forward

B.C. Ferries has a mandatory mask policy on vessels and at terminals. (News Bulletin file photo)
UPDATE: No tickets for anti-maskers on B.C. Ferries

West Van Police say their intention was to ‘keep the peace’ after being called to terminal

Steven Michael Bacon pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder of Nanaimo teen Makayla Chang. (Photos submitted)
Accused pleads not guilty in Nanaimo teen’s 2017 murder

Steven Bacon appeared in Nanaimo court Monday via video link from Thunder Bay

A jail cell at the Nanaimo RCMP detachment. (News Bulletin file photo)
Woman reports she was injured by Nanaimo RCMP while being jailed

Independent Investigations Office of B.C. looking into Oct. 1 incident

A 23-foot sailboat that broke free from its anchor was smashed against Cattle Point during the early October south-easterly storms. (Ron Geezin Photo)
Storm-smashed boat pulled off rocks of Cattle Point in Oak Bay

Sailboat a casualty of last week’s big storms

Local New Democrat Zeb King welcomed Premier John Horgan during a brief photo opportunity in Sidney Monday afternoon (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
NDP leader John Horgan predicts party will ‘flip’ Saanich North and the Islands

Incumbent MLA Adam Olsen calls Horgan’s claim ‘bold’

A passer-by walks past a COVID-19 testing clinic in Montreal, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Canada ‘yet to see’ deaths due to recent COVID surge as cases hit 200,000

Much of the increase in case numbers can be attributed to Ontario and Quebec

Police confirm human remains were found in a recycling bin in Vancouver on Oct. 18, 2020. (Black Press Media file photo)
Human remains found in recycling bin floating near Vancouver beach

Police asking nearby residents to see if their recycling bin has gone missing

(File photo)
RCMP: Two men face charges in reported Parksville fatal hit-and-run

Investigation into man’s death began in August of 2019

Passengers seated in rows five to 11 on WestJet flight 195 on Oct. 10 may have been exposed to COVID-19. (Black Press File Photo)
UPDATE: COVID-19 exposure reported on WestJet flights two days in a row

The BCCDC is cautioning people who flew from Calgary to Victoria Oct. 19 and 11

West Shore RCMP officers delivered dumped Amazon packages on Monday. (Black Press Media file photo)
West Shore RCMP deliver Amazon packages dumped outside mailbox

Officers take matters into their own hands ‘before mailbox pirates got to it’

Most Read