Science - October 18, 2017

Sole survivors at sea

Albert Sikkema

A freshly caught sole jumped down a British angler’s throat, almost causing him to suffocate – as was reported by newspapers last week. This happens on a regular basis, even in nature. Seals, pilot whale and porpoises sometimes suffocate due soles going down their trachea.

© Jan Haelters, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

A young British angler was kissing a sole he had just caught to celebrate the catch, upon which the fish wriggled out of his hand and jumped into his mouth, getting stuck in his throat. He is lucky enough to be able to retell the tale thanks to an ambulance worker in Dorset who was able to remove the 14-centimetre-long fish, as was related by British newspapers.

This is not an urban legend in the making. Better yet: it happens rather regularly. In nature, that is. Two years ago, a team of researchers, among whom was Mardik Leopold of Wageningen Marine Research, investigated the deaths of two long-finned pilot whales (a small species of whale) that had washed ashore on a Dutch beach. It turned out they had suffocated. A sole had gotten stuck in their nose, just behind their blowholes. Just like in the case of the British angler, the sole blocked the air supply of these mammals.

Leopold: ‘The sole is a flexible fish that doesn’t want to get eaten. So it wriggles in all directions in order to escape. Apparently, it saw the angler’s throat as an escape route.’

It also happens that other sea animals perish through flatfish in their trachea. ‘Another example is a seal that we got on our dissection table, with its stomach filled’, says Leopold. ‘The last flatfish apparently didn’t fit in its filled stomach and wriggled to the seal’s trachea via its mouth.’ Porpoises also sometimes choke in soles. Leopold has never found a flatfish in a porpoise’s throat, but his German marine research colleagues have.