The invasive snakehead is an interesting species.
What are they?
Snakeheads are like a fish straight from a nightmare. Known alternatively as Channa argus, lightning perch, grennel, mudfish, and Frankenfish, they are known for their razor-sharp teeth and their startling ability to “walk on land.”
The walking is the result of a lung-like organ they possess, which allows them to gulp air from the water’s surface. This allows them to survive in water with low oxygen levels and even on land for up to three days, provided they remain in moist environments.
This video from National Geographic details more about the snakehead:
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It is not uncommon to see a snakehead burrowing in the mud (hence the nickname mudfish), or even slithering from one body of water to another.
Stranger still is the fact that the snakehead bears a strong resemblance to the bowfin, a native North American fish. If you catch one and are uncertain as to whether or not you’ve caught a snakehead or a bowfin, here’s how to tell the difference:
- Scales on the head: The snakehead has scales on the head, whereas the bowfin does not.
- Bony plates between the jaw bones: The bowfin has these plates, where the snakehead does not.
- Pelvic fins: The snakehead’s pelvic fin is closer to the head, where the bowfin’s is farther back.
- Anal fin: The bowfin has a short anal fin, where the snakehead’s is long, stretching all the way back to the tail.
How did they get here?
As with many invasive fish species, aquariums could be largely to blame. As an exotic fish, the snakehead was likely bought for an aquarium and released by well-meaning owners who, either unable to transport the fish or sell it, didn’t want to simply kill it.
The other likely source is that some snakeheads may be escapees from Asian-style fish markets, where they would be kept alive until the time of purchase to preserve freshness.
The snakehead is an aggressive predator, known to eat anything in its path, from small fish to even small animals that cross their path. They also reproduce at alarming speeds. Female snakeheads are known to release 1,300 to 15,000 eggs per spawn, as many as five times a year. They build floating nests for these eggs, which they guard viciously, even attacking humans who venture too close.
Because of their ability to take over a body of water, the sale or even possession of a living snakehead is illegal in the state of Texas unless the individual has acquired a special permit. The fish must be dead, with its intestines removed.
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Some states have looked to management instead of eradication, and have realized the threat posed by the snakehead isn’t as drastic as initially believed.
What can we do?
If you catch a snakehead, most state laws require that you don’t release it back into the water.
Of course, there’s one certain way to decrease the snakehead population in a given area: learn to eat the invader! Though a somewhat oily fish compared to many freshwater species in America, the snakehead is edible and fairly popular in Asian markets.
The next time you see one chomping at your bait or slithering in the mud, don’t look it as a terrifying invader. It could be lunch!