Kreature Feature started off as an educational presentation at our monthly general staff meetings here at the Two Oceans Aquarium. We decided it’s only right to extend the knowledge and fun to our readers here on our website. Every month PA to Head of Education Katja Rockstroh presents a different animal that we have here at the Aquarium and tells our colleagues more about it. Usually she uncovers some rather interesting facts about the various animals she researches. She also makes sure to entertain her co-workers …

The brindle bass (Epinephelus lanceolatus) goes by many other names: brindled grouper, giant grouper, bumblebee grouper, Queensland groper (yes, that is the correct spelling – according to Australians) and brownspotted cod. In South Africa, they are called brindle bass rockcods and in Afrikaans they are a “briekwabaars”.

The fact that one fish can have so many common names highlights the importance of classification and taxonomy, because Latin names do not change according to what country you happen to be in.

Adult Queensland groper. Photo courtesy Robert F. Myers http://seaclicks.com/

There are 99 different species within the Epinephelus genus, ranging from tiny to the largest bony reef fish in the world, the brindle bass. When I say large, I mean … huge.

This fish can grow to 2.7 metres long (that’s larger than many sharks), they can get as heavy as 400kg and live up to 50 years old. Even larger specimens than this have been reported.

Our little brindle bass, which has been named Buzz, is really still a young one:

 

Brindle bass only reach sexual maturity when they hit 1.1 metres.

Incidentally, Buzz was called thus because at the time we received him, somehow a Buzz Lightyear action figure, from Toy Story, was lying around, prompting one of our collection aquarists to name the fish after the cartoon character.

Brindle bass, and the other larger specimens like the goliath grouper, are the apex predators in their habitats and feed on crustaceans, smaller fish, baby turtles, as well as sharks. Yes, sharks. A case in point:

The brindle bass lives in coral reefs in sub-tropical and tropical areas everywhere except the Americas. It is currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN; however the problem is that nobody knows what the actual global population size is. What we do know is that their numbers are declining.

WWF's South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) has put brindle bass on the red list, which means it is completely illegal for anyone to catch them. Other countries that have fully protected this fish are Mozambique, Australia and India.

Brindle bass in its various age stages. Illustration courtesy WWF/SASSI

The unfortunate thing is that not all countries protect the brindle bass and, especially in Asia, they land up in the live-fish markets. These are exactly what they sound like: large markets where live fish in tiny tanks are sold to people.

Tongyeong Live Fish Market in South Korea. Photo courtesy Flickr/Junho Jung under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A scary total of 3.6 million groupers, of different kinds, are eaten in Asia every year. The brindle bass specifically is thought to “cure soul loss and to ease pain”. Currently, a kilogram of brindle bass is worth US$169 (about R2 704 a kg). Technically, we have a R27 040 fish swimming around in our I&J Predator Exhibit, as Buzz only weighs about 10kg.

 

A photo posted by Bridget Debeila (@bridgetdebeila) on

 

But the exorbitant cost is clearly not a deterrent, as there is a high demand for these fish, which are usually caught when they are still very small, meaning that they never get the chance to reproduce and propogate the species.

Don't eat that fish

Some brindle bass and other large reef predators carry a food-borne illness called ciguatera fish poisoning (CFP). It is caused by a type of phytoplankton, called dinoflagellates. Dinoflagellates are eaten by herbivorous fish, which in turn are consumed by smaller carnivores, which are then eaten by apex predators like the brindle bass. By a process of biomagnification, which refers to the ability of animals to accumulate certain chemicals to a concentration larger than that occurring in the food that they eat, the toxin produced by dinoflagellates is absorbed into the tissue of the fish at very high concentrations. Eating that fish can cause CFP in humans.

Dinoflagellates. Photo courtesy Flickr/fickleandfreckled under licence CC BY 2.0

While dinoflagellates are very pretty, CFP is not. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, vertigo and hallucinations, among other things. CFP sufferers can also experience something called cold allodynia, which makes cold things that touch your skin feel burning-hot. Delightful! There is no cure; doctors can only treat the symptoms. With up to 50 000 people getting CFP every year, how about just not eating brindle bass? 

Bubba the Brindle Bass

Bubba the Super Grouper. Photo courtesy Chicagoist

In 1987 a brindle bass was left at the doorstep of Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, USA. She was named Bubba, but promptly turned into a male in the mid-90s. This is because brindle bass are possibly protogynous hermaphrodites, which means that they are all born female and later turn into a male, should the need arise.

Bubba was diagnosed with a malignant tumour on his head in 2001. Soon nicknamed Bubba the Super Grouper, he became the first fish to undergo chemotherapy. While undergoing treatment, fellow cancer patients at the Hope’s Children’s Hospital in Chicago started considering him as a mascot. The tumour was successfully treated and a plaque in his name still hangs in the oncology department of the hospital. Bubba died of natural causes in 2006.

Come and say hi to our Buzz during your next visit and just imagine what he would look like if he was 40 times heavier – because that is how big he could get.

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