THE BORDER LIFE

Pirate Perch
Riverdave’s Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 2/5/96

Besides the well-known game fish that are found in our Triangle area waters, there exists a startling variety of unique and special fish that very few of us have ever seen or heard of. They are not to be found as members of the large families of fishes like the sunfish, catfish, minnows or suckers. This past fall I wrote about the bowfin, the sole remaining species of an almost extinct family of fish. Yet another interesting species of native fish has become a member of my household this winter while occupying a small aquarium on my dining table. It, too, is the sole member of a family of fish with a unique characteristic.

In November, with dip net in hand, I pulled what is known as the pirate perch out of a shallow flooded area along New Hope Creek in southern Durham County. After running my net through a tangle of aquatic vegetation and mud, a small dark fish was left flopping before my eyes. I decided it was time to get to know this secretive fish, so I brought it home and plopped it into an aquarium and decided to work on deciphering its intriguing common and Latin names.

The common name, pirate perch, was given by a 19th century ichthyologist who observed that it would only eat other fish in captivity. Therefore, I provided it with tiny mosquito fish, but found my pirate perch not interested in them at all. Within the past week it has finally begun to gobble down earthworms which I am offering, contradicting the observation from the previous century. A modern field guide states that aquatic insects and small crustaceans are its principle source of food.

My specimen is about three inches long and sports a purplish sheen on its belly when flashed with sunlight. A truly large pirate perch may reach five inches in length. A vertical black bar drops down like a teardrop from each eye. Another vertical black bar comes just before the tail or caudal fin. An unusually large mouth and head, attached to its dark, almost blackish body, provide the pirate perch with a stern and somewhat fearsome appearance. This may be a more reasonable justification for its rather descriptive common name, pirate perch.

What may really be happening with the common name is an attempt to sanitize its most amazing feature. Its scientific name, Aphredoderus, is quite explicit. Meaning “excrement throat,'' this small fish has a unique distinction. When it is young, its anal opening is in what is considered a normal position for a fish, in the anterior of its body. As the fish matures, this opening slowly migrates forward on the body of the fish to the throat region where it remains as an adult. This unusual development has caused taxonomists to place this fish in a family of its own, making it unrelated to any other Triangle area fish. It does not belong to the family of fish known as perches at all.

The pirate perch can be found over much of the coastal plain and lower Piedmont from New York to Texas. It prefers swamps, backwaters of streams and roadside ditches where it likes to hide in dense aquatic vegetation during the daytime. Just after dark and before sunrise it comes out to hunt in a miniature soupy world of slithering, crawling and swimming aquatic creatures. Such twilight hunters are referred to as crepuscular, as opposed to diurnal or nocturnal.

For those who wish to search for this special fish in our area, distribution charts show its presence throughout the Triangle. Considering both its small size and the fact that it likes to hide in thick vegetation, a dip net is the best way to find it. Locate that slow-moving stream not too far off the main rivers of our area, or swampy areas behind flood control impoundments as I did. This is mainly a coastal plain species that extends up into the edge of the eastern Piedmont. So in our area, find the habitat that resembles the “down east'' bottomlands.

I named my little black pirate perch, “Teach,'' after the pirate Edward Teach, known also as Blackbeard, who once patrolled the coastal waters of North Carolina. But now that I have gotten to know Teach pretty well, I will be returning him to his watery world where he can resume his crepuscular hunting. What grand stories he will be able to tell his friends of his sojourn in the naturalist's aquarium! But now that we have carefully considered his true identity, we must also send him back with a new name - Poopthroat the Pirate Perch!

Photo by John Benneli: pirate perch