Snakeheads: A Horror Story

11/1/2017
Last edited 11/1/2017

“What kind of invasive species am I?”
Um. A snake something?
“Where is the snake?”
On your head. It’s wrapped around your head. Oh! A snakehead!
[Audible groans!]

A group of men and women with snakes crowning their heads.
Yes, that's the NISC Secretariat -- with snakes wrapped around their heads. DOI photo. Yep, we're taking credit for that. Nevertheless, the story is totally serious.

Snakehead fish are scary, and not just on Halloween. To bring attention to the harmful impacts that northern snakeheads (Channa argus) – and hundreds of other invasive species – are having on our environment, economy, and well-being, staff of the National Invasive Species Council (NISC) Secretariat dressed up like a school of metaphorical snakeheads.

“The northern snakehead is a voracious predatory fish native to Russia, China, North Korea, and South Korea. They have long, thin bodies and can reach nearly three feet in length,” said NISC’s Executive Director, Dr. Jamie K. Reaser. “They were first detected in the United States in California in 1997. Since then, they have been found in canals, ponds, lakes, and river systems in more than a dozen states. The rate of new introductions and their spread within watersheds is alarming.”

Fingers hold open the mouth of a sharp-toothed snakehead fish.
A look inside the invasive Northern Snakehead Channa argus. USGS photo.

What makes snakeheads particularly frightening? At least three things:

  1. To all but another snakehead, they’re considered rather ugly. And, they have big mouths with lots of sharp teeth. All the better to eat stuff with. An adult northern snakehead may consume prey up to a third (33%) of its own size.
  2. They eat stuff. Lots of stuff. Northern snakeheads devour and compete with our native fish, including important sportfish such as largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). Juvenile snakeheads eat zooplankton, insect larvae, small crustaceans, and other small fish. Adult snakeheads not only eat other fish, they prey on insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Yes, birds.
  3. They can thrive in some nasty places and, when they don’t like those places anymore, crawl out of the water and go someplace else. No kidding. Because snakeheads are obligate air-breathers, they can live in poorly-oxygenated stagnant water. Out of water, they can survive for up to four days. The juveniles can migrate overland. The adults are too round-bodied – and stuffed full of our beloved native fauna – to make the trek.

Fingers hold open the mouth of a tiny, but still razor-toothed snakehead fish.
Small, yes. Cute? Not so much. Invasive? Definitely. Photo by Buck Albert, USGS

“The federal government recognizes the devastating impacts that northern snakeheads could have throughout much of the United States,” notes Dr. Stas Burgiel, the NISC Secretariat’s Assistant Director for Policy and Program Coordination. “The importation and cross-border transport of northern snakehead was prohibited in 2002 when they were listed under the Lacey Act as injurious wildlife.”

How did northern snakeheads become a problem in the United States? They were likely imported to supply the growing trade in live food fish and subsequently released to create new market opportunities. The intentional release of snakeheads continues and is worrisome, including the dumping of unwanted fish from aquariums. Interestingly, sometimes the problem can become part of the solution. In this case, there is an opportunity to eat it to help beat it. For example, DC’s Thip Khao restaurant has an invasive species menu largely dedicated to the consumption of northern snakeheads harvested from the Potomac River. Online, you can find plenty of recipes for snakeheads and other invasive species. New companies are emerging to supply restaurants with all sorts of wild-harvested invasive animals and plants that would otherwise have terrifying impacts.

There is a lot to learn from a Halloween costume.

What might we expect to be roaming the Department of the Interior halls on October 31st, 2018? It could be very muscular zebras or, perhaps, VW Beetles with horns that just won’t quit blaring. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

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