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148 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 20, No. 1
Predation on Dovekies by Goosefish over Deep Water in the
Northwest Atlantic Ocean
Matthew C. Perry1,*, Glenn H. Olsen1, R. Anne Richards2, and Peter C. Osenton1
Abstract - Fourteen Alle alle (Dovekie) were recovered from the stomachs of 14 Lophius
americanus (Goosefish) caught during winter and spring 2007–2010. All fish were caught in
gill nets set at depths of 85–151 m (276–491 ft) 104–150 km (65–94 mi) south of Chatham, MA.
Dovekies showed few signs of digestion by the fish, indicating recent capture. Post mortem revealed
no cause of mortality. Capture of birds by fish so far from shore and in deep water leads
to speculation that the birds were preyed on by Goosefish at or near the surface. Evidence from
electronic tagging of Goosefish suggests that Goosefish vertical migrations could bring them
into contact with Dovekies feeding offshore. If Goosefish are concentrated during onshoreoffshore
migrations and Dovekies are concentrated for feeding on prey patches, predation by
Goosefish on Dovekies could be episodically important.
While working in Nantucket, MA, in December 2007 on Seaducks (Tribe Mergini),
the authors heard from a fisherman (W. Blount, pers. comm.) that he had seen watermen
in Chatham, MA, remove seabirds from the stomachs of Lophius americanus Valenciennes
(Goosefish), a large lophiid anglerfish distributed widely in the northwest Atlantic
Ocean (Collette and Klein-MacPhee 2002). He further indicated that the birds may have
been Melanitta perspicillata L. (Surf Scoter), a common species in the Nantucket area
under study in the Atlantic Flyway (Perry et al. 2006), or Clangula hyemalis L. (Longtailed
Duck), a species being studied for feeding ecology (Perry 2012, White et al. 2009)
and for their daily “commute” from Nantucket Sound to the Atlantic Ocean (Davis 1997,
Perkins 1988). The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham
was contacted and asked to notify watermen (especially deepwater gillnetters) to save for
examination any birds found in Goosefish.
Goosefish are opportunistic sit-and-wait predators that attract prey using a modified
fin ray that functions as a “fishing pole” (Fig. 1A). They consume a broad array of prey
species including other Goosefish, and are primarily piscivorous once juveniles reach
about 20 cm (8 in) total length (approximately age 2) (Armstrong et al. 1996, Garrison
and Link 2000, Johnson et al. 2008, Staudinger 2006). Goosefish stomachs have also been
found to contain non-food items such as rocks, sand, and plastic items (R.A. Richards,
unpubl. data). The food habits studies are based primarily on data from resource surveys
conducted by NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) since the 1970s on the
northeast continental shelf (9–325 m [27–975 ft]) depth range) from Cape Hatteras, NC,
through the Gulf of Maine.
None of the food-habits studies has reported consumption of Dovekies by Goosefish;
however, a number of historical reports exist documenting a wide range of avian prey, including
Gavia sp. (loon), Podicipedidae (grebe), Phalacrocorax sp. (cormorant), Anas sp.
(wigeon), Aythya sp. (scaup), Melanitta sp. (scoter), Merginae (merganser), Larus argentatus
Pontoppidan (Herring Gull), Alcidae (alcid) , and Puffinus puffinus Brunnich (Manx
Shearwater) (Ball 1944, Collett and Klein-MacPhee 2002, Davenport 1979, Gibson 1923,
Glegg 1945, Goode 1884, Groves and Peabody 1975, Leach 1943, Schroeder 1947).
1USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 12100 Beech Forest Road, Laurel, MD 20708.
2NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC, 166 Water Street, Woods Hole, MA 02543. *Corresponding author -
Notes of the Northeastern Naturalist, Issue 20/1, 2013
2013 Northeastern Naturalist Notes 149
Hunters have witnessed Goosefish rising to the surface of the wa ter and swallowing live
Herring Gulls whole (Groves and Peabody 1975).
Thirteen Dovekies collected from Goosefish stomachs in this study were examined
after donation from fishermen through the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s
Association (Table 1, Fig. 1). Two other Dovekies were reported by one of the same
gillnetters in December 2007, but were not submitted for examination. Dovekies and
Goosefish were frozen and later shipped for examination at USGS Patuxent Wildlife
Research Center. All fish were caught in gill nets set at depths of 85–151 m (276–491 ft)
104–150 km (65–90 mi) south of Chatham, MA (Table 1, Fig. 1). The nets were set for
3–6 days, with a mean soak time of 4.7 days. Three of the 14 Goosefish with Dovekies
were caught between early December and early January, and 9 were caught between late
March and early May (Table 1).
Eight of the 13 Dovekies were examined in a complete post-mortem, and no cause
of death could be determined. All 8 of the Dovekies had low body fat. However, size of
breast muscles (body condition index) was low in only 2 of the 8, indicating that it was
unlikely that the Dovekies had starved to death. Three of the 8 Dovekies had puncture
wounds in the skull, possibly inflicted by teeth of the Goosefish while the Dovekies were
Using traditional techniques (Perry and Uhler 1988), we examined 13 Dovekies for
food, of which 12 had no food in their gizzard and one Dovekie had a small particle of
an unknown crustacean. Of the Dovekies with no food, one had one small piece of quartz
grit and one had a 2-mm round ball of monofilament fishing line. There was no food or
other material in the gullet (esophagus and proventriculus). The mean weight of the gizzard
without food was 2.2 g (range = 1.5–3.4 g).
In the NOAA NEFSC food-habits data base, consumption of birds by Goosefish has
been seen very infrequently, although survey sampling is less intensive in shallow water
Table 1. Measurements of 13 Dovekies and 12 Goosefish caught 2008–2010, from boats homeported
in Chatham, MA.
Net Capture Body Gizzard Body Body Body Body
Spec. soak location Depth wt. wt. lgth. wt. lgth. wdth.
No. Date days Lat. (N) Long.(W) (m) Age Sex (g) (g) (cm) (kg) (cm) (cm)
1 5/6/08 4 40°12.2' 70°02.4' 92 2.8 8.34A 81.3 38.1
2 12/5/08 41°36.9' 69°33.2' 111 180 3.3 4.54 76.2
3 12/5/08 41°36.9' 69°33.2' 111 200 2.1 2.27 50.8
4 3/27/09 105 km. s. of Nan. Is. 120 196 2.0 3.10 58.0A
5 4/1/09 6 40°03' 70°02' 151 162 2.0 3.30 59.3A
6 5/8/09 40°17.6' 70°03.4' 116 204 1.5 20.1 5.45 72.3A
7 1/10/10 3 40°21.4' 70°21.3' 85 4.25 72.0 30.0
8 3/28/10 145 km. s. of Cape Cod F 230 3.4 19.2
9 3/28/10 6 40°07.8' 70°02.9' M 196 1.9 19.4 9.08 83.7A
10 4/6/10 40°13.7' 70°03.6' 94 F 230 1.6 3.63 61.2 A
11 4/12/10 40°02.7' 69°56.0' 129 194 1.7 22.2 4.10 67.3
12 4/16/10 40°14.4' 70°22.1' 118 Ad F 208 2.1 21.9 5.51 70.9
13 4/24/10 4 40°04.9' 70°20.6' 126 M 206 1.7 22.6
14 4/25/10 5 40°07.3' 69°50.9' 96 Ad M 215 2.1 23.3 4.75 72.1
Mean 4.7 112 202 2.2 21.2 4.86 68.8 34.0
AMissing lengths and weights of Goosefish were derived from length-weight equations for Goosefish
(Wigley et al. 2003).
150 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 20, No. 1
where predation by Goosefish on birds might be more common. Birds or feathers (not
identified to species) were found in 4 Goosefish out of total sample of approximately1200
stomachs examined during 1973–2010 (Table 2). These occurrences were all in the
Figure 1. Goosefish with mouth open and Dovekie, which was removed from its stomach (A), and
3 Goosefish with 1 Dovekie removed from each fish (B).
2013 Northeastern Naturalist Notes 151
spring, and ranged in location from near Cape Hatteras, NC, to the Gulf of Maine in
depths of 19–112 m (62–364 ft; Fig. 2). Two of the Goosefish containing feathers were
caught at the same survey station at 19 m (62 ft).
Table 2. Records of Goosefish captured with evidence of birds in stomachs, NOAA Northeast Fisheries
Science Center food-habits data base, 1973–2010.
Depth temp (°C) Length Weight Prey
Date Lat. Long. (m) Surface Bottom (cm) (kg) itemA Comments
4/23/1984 42°30' 65°51' 112 5.7 Bird Well digested
3/23/1999 40°45.7' 72°40.8' 19 5.0 4.6 19 0.15 Feathers
3/24/1999 40°45.7' 72°40.8' 19 5.0 4.6 23 0.19 Feathers
3/11/2006 36°26.1' 75°09.3' 35 9.5 9.4 67 4.36 Bird Well digested
ABird and feathers were not identified.
Figure 2. Locations where Goosefish that had consumed Dovekies were captured in this study
(filled circles). Two open circles represent two sites not represented by latitude and longitude (cf.
Table 1). Asterisks represent capture site of Goosefish with birds and feathers from NOAA Northeast
Fisheries Science Center food-habits data base, 1973–2010. Diamond indicates location of
Chatham, MA, on Cape Cod; arrow shows location of Nantucket Isl and.
152 Northeastern Naturalist Vol. 20, No. 1
We speculate that Dovekies are present in the Atlantic Ocean more than 100 km (62
mi) south of Cape Cod to feed on concentrations of zooplankton in the water (Nisbet et
al., in press). Zooplankton concentrations are a common food source for Dovekies in
other areas (Montevecchi and Stenhouse 2002). Other birds known to prey on zooplankton
in this region include Long-tailed Ducks, which have been found in the Nantucket
Island area (Fig. 2), with high numbers of the pelagic amphipod Gammarus annulatus S.I.
Smith in their gullet and gizzard (White et al. 2009). It has been hypothesized that most
of the food items (especially the amphipods) were obtained in the ocean during the day
before the ducks returned to Nantucket Sound at dusk. Zooplankton surveys have found
that Gammarid amphipods are seasonally abundant in the water column on Georges Bank
and Nantucket Shoals (Avery et al. 1996).
It seems unlikely that Dovekies, with maximum dive depths of 19–35 m (62–114 ft)
(Motevecchi and Stenhouse 2002) would encounter a benthic-dwelling fish in deep water.
Although Goosefish are known to feed on birds in shallow surface waters (Murdy et al.
1997), it seems unlikely that they would ascend 100 m (325 ft) or more to feed on birds.
However, Goosefish are known to rise off the bottom, possibly to ride currents during migration
periods in spring and fall or to spawn at the surface (Hislop et al. 2000, Laurenson
and Priede 2005, Rountree et al. 2008). Goosefish are highly opportunistic predators and
may feed while in the water column if the opportunity arises. The fresh state of digestion
of the consumed Dovekies suggests that they were consumed in the general vicinity
of the Goosefish capture location. Marine bird surveys indicate a substantial increase in
Dovekie abundance in shelf waters from Maine to North Carolina, especially near hydrographic
fronts over the last 30 years (T. White, College of Staten Island, Staten Island,
NY, pers. comm.; Nisbet et al., in press; Veit and Guris 2009).
Insight into Goosefish vertical migrations comes from two studies in which Goosefish
were tagged with electronic data storage tags (Richards et al. 2012, Rountree et al. 2008).
In both studies, Goosefish showed extensive vertical movements, which were frequent
during late fall and spring. Some of these movements brought Goosefish near or to the
surface. One Goosefish exhibited a vertical movement of 209 m (679 ft), (Rountree et al.
2008), which is greater than the maximum depth (151 m [491 ft]) where Goosefish with
Dovekies were collected in this study (Table 1). This finding indicates that predation by
Goosefish on birds at or near the water surface is plausible.
The vertical movements reported by Rountree et al. (2008) occurred primarily (81%)
between 0000 h and 1200 h and peaked at 0300 h and 1000 h. Visual observations of
Goosefish on the surface at night have been made by gillnet fishermen in deep ocean waters
south of Nantucket Island (J. Our, Captain of Miss Fitz, Chatham, MA, pers. comm.).
The night period is a time when Dovekies would most likely be sleeping on the water
surface. However, Goosefish typically cue in on movement to capture prey and may be
capturing Dovekies in early daylight hours when the birds begin to dive for mobile prey.
Future tagging of Goosefish with pop-off radio telemetry tags (L. Jordan, Microwave
Telemtery, Inc., Columbia, MD, pers. comm.) that transmit data to satellites would help
provide more information on vertical movements of Goosefish in regard to possible predation
The magnitude of fish predation on seabirds is poorly understood. Based on foodhabits
data from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s resource surveys, other fish
species that had birds or feathers in the stomach included: Squalus acanthias L. (Spiny
Dogfish), Leucoraja erinacea Mitchill (Little Skate), Clupea harengus L. (Atlantic
Herring), Gadus morhua L. (Atlantic Cod), Pollachius virens L. (Pollock), Urophycis
chuss Walbaum (Red Hake), and Hippoglossina oblonga Mitchill (Fourspot Flounder).
However, the incidence is very low, with only a total of 16 specimens (including 4
2013 Northeastern Naturalist Notes 153
Goosefish) found with evidence of predation on birds during 1973–2010. Undoubtedly,
the intensity of predation on birds by fishes varies temporally and geographically, but
may be episodically important as evidenced by the relatively large number of specimens
of Goosefish collected in this study that had consumed Dovekies.
Acknowledgments. Staff of the Cooperative Research Program of the Cape Cod
Commercial Hook and Fishermen’s Association (North Chatham, MA), especially E.
Brazer, Jr., P. Parker, M. Sanderson, and L. Slifka, were very helpful in storing and
mailing fish and birds for the project. Northeast Fisheries Science Center staff that assisted
included D. Palka and G. Shield. Gillnetters who assisted by providing fish with
birds included R. Crowell, D. Fenny, M. Linnell, G. Nickerson, J. Our, K. Tolley, R.
Tolley, and D. Vlacich. Massachusetts Audubon Society provided travel funds as part
of a project financed by Mineral Management Services. Assistance with Dovekie food
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Gutierrez, and C. Kilchenstein. William Blount of Nantucket Island gave information
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