Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I've Got Your Biological Imperative Right Here

The nicest lady
The nicest lady volunteered to take a group of us out to the Gorge to watch salmon spawning. I was all over it. I figured she'd have plenty of practice spotting salmon, and I'd have a better chance of seeing them myself. But they weren't hard to spot. There were a skillion salmon out there just having at it, and they did not care who was watching.

It's a heroic little venture those fish have going. Zip out to the ocean, spend a few years, and motor back to the home stream just in time to spawn and drop dead. Reproduction is the usual collaborative effort between males and females, but it's hard to see what's in it for anybody. There's a biological imperative operating, and whoever doesn't get with the program is a dead-end kid, in terms of personal legacy. But what a shoddy deal.

The female, at least, can look forward to dropping a lot of eggs more or less at once. That's certainly an improvement over the human model, which is one long protracted interlude of bloat and dirty laundry without a lot to show for most of it. The salmon is going to have a shot at a couple thousand kids, but she's not going to see them into kindergarten.

The way it works is the salmon make their way to the cold, fresh waters of their childhood. The females set about making a nest in the gravelly stream bottom. They do this by turning sideways and going whappity whappity whappity with their tails, cleaning the scuzz off the pebbles and sending the smaller stuff and silt downstream, until they've scooped out a  bit of a depression. The finished product is called a "redd" and can be observed as a clean patch of gravel in the stream bottom, as well as in crossword puzzles. Once she's got everything just so, she signals a male from among the group hanging out nearby, and they sidle up to each other and she drops some eggs and he shoots his wad of milt and the female makes an attempt to cover the eggs and whatever doesn't get eaten by birds or bears or other fish turns into salmon babies. Once the little guys are an inch long, we call them "fry," which is just rude. It's like calling piglets "roast."

The female might do this up to seven times, always traveling upstream, and the disturbed gravel and silt from her whappiting float down and help cover her previous efforts. That part is slick. The nature of the motivation for the males is unclear. On his way to the spawning grounds, he grows a set of canine teeth with which he can take a nip out of the butts of competing males. So some of the thrashing we witnessed was females making a nest and some of it was males duking it out for the privilege of wanking off in front of a female. Because when he finally gets the word from a ready female, there isn't anything like what we'd consider real erotic contact. They just swim side by side. The nearness of you, and all that. It's got to be done; but it seems less like passion than, say, patriotism. And then there's the whole dying part.

Mmm. Braaiiiins.
These salmon look beat to hell, and no mistake. They're patchy and weird. They quit eating when they reach freshwater, and their stomachs crumble away. The females' tails are shredded up from all the whappiting. They're a mess. And besides that, they're constantly dodging dead salmon floating downstream, which you would think would give them pause. But salmon, to their credit, do not suffer from existential dread.

Many of the salmon we saw looked, from the relatively good condition of their tails, as though they had died before spawning, which is altogether the wrong order of events. It's been a rough year for water in the Northwest. It's too shallow. It's too warm. It's too altogether missing.

But it's all the same to the bears, who'll take their fish dead, dying, or shiny. They haul them up into the woods, eat their brains, discard the rest, and poop, thus effectively redistributing nitrogen to the forest plants. You always knew what they do in the woods. Now you know why. They're always thinking of others, bears.

Here's a little video of our salmon, plus a bonus video of an American Dipper who thinks there might just be salmon eggs around (and he's right):



30 comments:

  1. I remember reading somewhere that the reason why so many diseases befall us in our later years is because Nature has no interest in keeping us alive and healthy once we are past our breeding years. That being said, I wonder if that means that by breeding, one opens oneself up to getting more diseases and dying because one has"done one's duty", and if by not breeding, one has staved off the more virulent diseases because Nature is waiting for you to get with the program.

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    1. Well I didn't do my duty, and I have a sore throat right now, so I'm going to go with "probably not."

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  2. Sex.Doesn't get any more basic. or, in many cases, any better. for some , it's a distant memory...
    Being rather fond of salmon(taste-wise) I hope they manage to keep spawning.

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    1. I'm sure they get something out of it. It's hard to imagine what.

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  3. Poor salmon. One would think they'd get more romance in exchange for all their labors and sacrifice.

    I suddenly have a craving for salmon roe sushi...

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    1. Now that's all I'm going to be thinking about all day.

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  4. Nature is always interesting, even if it's also cruel, weird, and stinky. Thanks for yet another peek into it.

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    1. I've heard of "Nature red in tooth and claw" but "cruel, weird, and stinky" works too.

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    2. Uncaring, weird and stinky works for me too. I don't think she is interested enough to be cruel.

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    3. Yeah, we take things so personally.

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  5. I always wish the best for spawning salmon and their success in breeding. They are so damned tasty!

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    1. Lewis and Clark would beg to differ, but I won't.

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  6. Still snorting at your clever twist on fry.

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    1. Well, it's just rude, isn't it? Talk about your existential dread.

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  7. I first learned about all this in Irish class a long time ago. It was interesting but made less so by our struggle with what should have been our native tongue but wasn't by the time I came along. Your version is just as interesting as well as being easier to read and downright hilarious.

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    1. I took a year's worth of biology in London at the Sir John Cass School of Science and Technology. That was pretty much a foreign tongue to me, too.

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  8. Oh, I bet it's plenty interesting for the salmon. There's a grand work of the imagination for you, though. What is the subjective experience of spawning? It has to be something so transcendent that getting beat up and killed seems trivial beside it. (Assuming salmon have subjective experience. I'm betting they do: it takes more far-fetching to imagine those kind of motor skills without it, than with it.) But what's it *like* for them? That's the sort of question that makes me dizzy and causes me to float downstream, feebly waggling my tail.

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    1. Here's what I visualize: something is drawing you toward the female. Who knows what? You're feeling kind of sexy and you feel that much better around the female. And she picks you, and scents are coming off her, and you're sharing the same current and the same sine-wave of movement, and oh my god, she's dropping eggs, oh my god, BLOOSH! shot my wad. Like that.

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  9. This was SO well written--you're a very funny lady!!

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    1. That's what I most like to hear. Thank YOU.

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  10. I remember years ago seeing the salmon spawning in Kootenay River in Canada and they were so thick and so red that you coulda walked across on their backs! Amazing!

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    1. It sounds like you got into a run of sockeye. That's the red fish in my picture--most were Cohos or Chinooks.

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  11. Well Murr, if your novel thing doesn't work out, how about a biology text book? I'd pay to get one of those and I'm about 50 years out of school!

    Male salmon heard singing: 'Don't the girls all get prettier at closing time...'

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    1. I have written a book about birds that you would LOVE. I also think anyone would love it. We're having trouble, my agent and I, interesting a publisher in it. Because they think the world of "birders" is too small. Is it a book about birds, or is it a humor book? Well, honey, did you laugh your ass off all the way through? That's your first clue.

      Brother.

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  12. Where is the pics and video from? I assume one of the tribs of the Columbia, one of the small ones, but it looks really low, hardly a trickle. I did read about the salmon dying in the Willamette earlier this year. I saw that decades ago down in southern Oregon, in the Illinois river upstream from where it empties into the Rogue.
    i'm down in LA, getting ready to head for Europe....it was 100 the other day here....middle of Oct.

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    1. It was very very low, and the salmon were spawning within inches of the Columbia. We went a couple places, but these shots are all from Eagle Creek.

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  13. I started reading this about five hours ago and found myself falling asleep in my chair; NOT your fault, I'm on a double dose of antihistamines right now, so here I am again, I watched the video, that stream looks awfully shallow, I'm surprised the salmon could swim at all. I've seen videos in the past of salmon jumping up waterfalls to get to their spawning grounds, they're pretty amazing fish.

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    1. I think they're really supposed to get up a little farther, but everyone seemed to drop their load as soon as they hit the stream. It's not cold enough.

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  14. Well, I must write, I have never quite heard the spawning of salmon put quite this way. Now it seems so desperately sad and I may not eat salmon for a while.

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    1. Maybe sadness is a salmon trait. Maybe they like the idea of being eaten, in which case you would be withholding joy from them by abstaining. Which would make them happy...wait. I'm getting confused.

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