QUODDY NATURE NOTES
by Fred Gralenski
Earlier in the summer I happened to be going over the stone arch bridge in Pembroke and I noticed a fellow netting something in the tide pools. Being of the curious sort (nosy?), I stopped to see what he was trying to catch. “Tomcods”, he said in an unmistakable Maine accent as he showed me his prizes, “best bait going, for almost anything in fresh and salt water.” I admired the little fish, chatted a bit, then drove off, a little puzzled. I thought I knew some fish, and when I got home I checked my references, but that led to further confusion. When reference books and Google fail, the next step is to catch one of the little rascals (which I did with some difficulty), take his picture and email it off to Dr Brian Beal of the Downeast Institute, and a couple of days later I had my answer. “You have,” Dr. Beal wrote, “the ubiquitous Mummichog”. That was probably what the first fellow was trying to tell me. His accent, processed through a hearing aid that cost more than the down payment of my first house, could easily have turned ‘Mummichog’ into ‘Tomcod’.
Mummichogs are a neat little fish that may grow up to five inches long. They live on the east coast of North America from Newfoundland to Texas, and probably never stray more than 100 yards from land. They like the company of their own kind and other fish of about the same size, as the name ‘Mummichog’ is apparently derived from Native American words which mean something like, ‘swimming in crowds’. There are several species of Mummichogs, and the common ones around the Quoddy region here are Fundulus heteroclitus, with possibly a subspecies and variant. Fisheries biologists are still debating this. Here in the Quoddy region our Mummichogs have just finished breeding and the males have lost most of their vivid coloration. During the spawning season the males are a bright yellow underneath with prominent vertical stripes on their sides, while the females remain a pale olive color on top and white below. Female Mummichogs deposit their clutch of 10 – 300 eggs up in the detritus of the high tide mark of a full or new moon. They mix their eggs in with and underneath the vegetation and mussel shells where they won’t be excessively dried out. The eggs develop in this environment and on the next high tide a couple of weeks later the eggs hatch, and the youngsters form their own crowd. Mummichogs may spawn many times after they becoming adults in two years, but the spawning activity must be rigorous because few live beyond three years of age. In winter Mummichogs are generally pretty sedentary and may stay at the bottoms of the deeper pools or burrow down in the mud. They are an amazingly hardy fish. Mummichogs can tolerate salinities from freshwater to over three times the normal salinity of ocean water and they can stand low oxygen content and high levels of pollution like the PCB’s and other industrial toxins found amid the operations of typical coastal commerce. They have been known to migrate out of an area if it is so foul that it is bereft of food, and they have been stocked in polluted stagnant pools to eliminate mosquitoes, which they do handily. The Mummichog was also the first fish in space on Skylab 3 in 1973. It seemed to learn how to tolerate zero gravity, but I could never understand how its buoyancy control could function. Did it swim upside down or on its side and how could it tell? Nothing worse than a smart-alecky fish, but I’ll tolerate that if they help bring back life in some of the salt marshes in the Gulf of Mexico that took a hit from the BP oil spill.