Northern snakeheads, also known as Frankenfish, have become a major concern in the United States due to their invasive nature and ability to reproduce rapidly. These fish have the ability to breathe air and lay up to 50,000 eggs at a time, making them a threat to native ecosystems. The US government recommends killing these predators on sight to prevent their spread. Recently, a northern snakehead was spotted in Missouri, marking the furthest into the Midwest that these fish have been seen.
The discovery of the Frankenfish in Missouri occurred when staff members at Duck Creek Conservation Area went out to collect crawdads as bait for a fishing competition. Instead, they stumbled upon a 13-inch predator lurking in the waters – the northern snakehead. Known for their serpentine appearance, these fish are native to parts of Asia and Africa and have become a menace in the US since their initial sighting in 2002.
Although the monstrous reputation of the northern snakehead has led to its portrayal in horror movies like “Frankenfish” and “Snakehead Terror,” the reality is that these fish are voracious predators that disrupt American ecosystems wherever they go. Sightings of northern snakeheads have been reported in 17 US states and Washington, DC, with most occurrences on the East Coast. However, a second population has been spreading in Arkansas since 2008.
While a northern snakehead was previously sighted in southern Missouri in 2019, the recent finding in Duck Creek Conservation Area is particularly concerning as it indicates that these predators are expanding their territory deeper into the country. The adaptability of the northern snakehead is a key factor in its success as an invasive species. These fish possess a unique organ called the suprabranchial chamber, which enables them to breathe air. They can swim to the surface, expel old air, and create a vacuum for new air to fill in. This adaptation allows them to survive even in areas with low water levels or overcrowding.
It is unlikely that the fish found its way to Missouri by hitchhiking, as it is primarily a water traveler. The Mississippi River serves as a natural highway for the northern snakehead, and it was most likely through this waterway that the fish reached Missouri. Dave Knuth, a fisheries management biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, emphasized the need for vigilance, stating that it is only a matter of time before the northern snakeheads spread further north.
Once these predators establish themselves in new territories, their populations spread rapidly. Their ability to breathe air gives them an advantage over other fish species as they can cross river systems that would be otherwise impassable. With their ability to breed multiple times a year, each time laying up to 50,000 eggs, northern snakeheads pose a significant threat to native wildlife. While they typically avoid humans, they can become aggressive when protecting their young. In Maryland, where the impact of northern snakeheads has been studied, native fish species have experienced significant declines, with some populations decreasing by as much as 97%.
The Duck Creek Conservation Area in Missouri is home to unique lowland and swamp habitats that support a variety of fish species. If the northern snakeheads invade this area, it could have devastating consequences for the local ecosystem. To address this issue, the US government recommends that if anyone spots a northern snakehead, they should kill it immediately. While eradicating all northern snakeheads is unlikely, culling their numbers can help prevent further spread.
There are various methods for killing a northern snakehead, including placing it on ice, cutting off its head, gutting it, or cooking it. In fact, northern snakeheads are part of the traditional Chinese diet and are widely cultivated in Southeast Asian countries for food and medicinal purposes. However, it is important to verify that the fish is indeed a northern snakehead before taking any action. Bowfins, a native North American fish species, resemble northern snakeheads but have distinct characteristics that differentiate them. If unable to capture the fish, individuals can report their sighting to assist researchers in tracking the spread of the species.
The recent sighting of a northern snakehead in Missouri serves as a reminder of the need to remain vigilant to prevent the further expansion of these invasive predators. To report any sightings near the Duck Creek Conservation Area, individuals can contact the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southeast Regional Office at 573-290-5858. By taking prompt action and working together, we can help protect our native wildlife and preserve our ecosystems for future generations.