MOBILE — When science teacher Tami May stumbled across the carcass of a rare Gulf sturgeon, news of the find went viral, with media outlets as far away as India contacting her for information.
But it’s unlikely anyone took more interest in the find than researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Often referred to as a “living fossil”, the Gulf sturgeon has existed for at least 200 million years — dating back to the Jurassic period — and the fish has remained largely unchanged in appearance. Covered in a hard coat of protective armor, they can reach up to 9 feet long and weigh as much as 50 pounds.
May teaches eighth grade physical science at Clark Shaw Magnet School of Science and Math in Mobile. She came upon the carcass in early December while scouting the weather for kayak fishing.
“I did not know exactly what it was. I was investigating it and thought it was a damaged alligator gar,” said May. "But then I saw the mouth parts and vaguely remembered something that I had learned about sturgeon.”
She texted the discovery to family friend Frank Hernandez, a marine biologist and former USM faculty member who now works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Hernandez contacted researchers at USM’s Division of Coastal Sciences.
“He confirmed that it was a sturgeon, and that I needed to report it to NOAA,” said May. “He also reached out to his colleague, Dr. Mike Andres, and graduate student Elizabeth Greenheck.”
Andres and Greenheck took possession of the fish and began running tests.
Andres conducted a necropsy of the sturgeon that included measuring the fish, examining it for signs of trauma, checking for any external tags, taking tissue for genetic samples, and testing a section of the pectoral fin for aging. The sturgeon measured approximately 5 feet, 1 inch.
“We then scanned the fish for passive induced transponder (PIT) tags, which is the same technology used when microchipping a pet and acts as a social security number for an individual, to determine that individual’s capture history,” Andres said. “For this fish in particular, we were able to determine that it was first captured in Pearl River, Louisiana, in 2018 and had not been recaptured until it died.”
After checking for parasites and making an incision to examine the inner organs, the fish was examined to see if it had been surgically implanted with an acoustic transmitter, which have been used to track the movements of Gulf sturgeon.
“Based upon the necropsy, we determined the fish was male, had never been surgically implanted with an acoustic transmitter, died from trauma to the area behind the head (possibly a propeller strike), that it was actively feeding on small fish while in Mobile Bay, and that it had been dead for about two days prior to reporting,” Andres said.
Andres said his lab focuses heavily on fish ecology, especially as it relates to the conservation of Gulf sturgeon. As a result, his team conducts a variety of studies, ranging from how restoration activities may influence the fish’s habitat use and movements to describing population demographics.
Gulf sturgeon are a federally protected species, currently listed on the Endangered Species Act as threatened, and they are listed at the state level as endangered. The current known range of spawning rivers for Gulf sturgeon is restricted to seven rivers from the Pearl River to the Suwanee River in Florida.
Although Gulf sturgeon populations are reduced compared to their historical abundance and distribution, it is not especially uncommon for beachgoers or boaters to occasionally encounter a dead specimen.
“However, oftentimes many folks will not report a dead sturgeon on the beach whereas they will do so more frequently for sea turtles or cetacean,” Andres said. “This finding, in particular, was unique as it provided an opportunity to determine if Gulf sturgeon are indeed feeding in Mobile Bay. We, and others, have long expected Gulf sturgeon are still using portions of Mobile Bay for feeding habitat, and so we were able to confirm that this is occurring.”
Although May turned the carcass over to the research team, she was able to share photos of her find with her science students, many of whom she said didn’t initially understand the importance of what she had found.
“They were more in awe of the pictures I was sharing,” she said. “These sturgeons are so reptile- and dinosaur-like and not fish-like at all. It looks ancient. Unfortunately, kids don’t get outside much these days, so they did not realize this was an unusual find. Now, they are excited to learn more.”
In addition, Andres discussed the find and what research had uncovered during a presentation to students at Clark Shaw on Thursday. Greencheck had filmed the necropsy performed by Andres, who in turn shared the video with the students.
“In doing so, these students were given the unique opportunity to see the entire process — without having to experience any of the smells,” Andres said, “and hear about a species not commonly encountered in Mobile Bay.”
As noted, May’s find stirred considerable media attention, which surprised her as much as the find itself.
“My mom had posted it on the local Dauphin Island Fan Page, and it went crazy,” said May. “Then Devon Walsh from WKRG-TV shared it. That’s when it really went viral. It wasn’t until my sister-in-law in Atlanta called and said she saw it that I really got the scope of how far it was shared. I even had a news outlet from India contact me.
“It makes me happy to know that people are aware of the importance of the public knowing they need to report findings like this so that researchers can make more accurate reports, and consequently decision-makers will have the correct information they need before altering the ecosystem.”
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