It has a torpedo-shaped body, rows of sharp teeth, and if it has to, it can swim up from the muck of east Broward canals and walk across land.
Animal Planet's Jeremy Wade, whose program River Monsters is the highest-rated show in AP history -- with moe than a million viewers per episode -- spent a week cruising Broward's fresh waterways in search of the bullseye snakehead, a beast nearly as hyped and mythologized as any lagoon creature or skunk ape.
If you've been too busy worrying about 12-foot gator-eating pythons or that colony of iguanas replicating in your oak trees, you might want to reorient your paranoias toward the snakehead -- a toothy, homicidal maniac, according to some reports -- which makes its U.S. home only in Broward County (a relative lives up in the Philadelphia/New York area and many others in Asia).
The snakehead is native to China, and it's been released in Florida waters pretty much the same way most of our nonnative species have -- people buy them as pets for aquariums and then flush or dump them. We talked to Wade by phone this morning in England. Wade is British, a sort of zoological version of Gordon Ramsey -- and he appears from video clips to share the same risk-taking gene. This is what he told us about his quest to find and understand the snakehead:
"We'd heard some pretty eyebrow-raising stories," Wade said. "But there are 20 species of snakehead, and they all have slightly different characteristics. We did a piece of the program in Southeast Asia, trying to get to the bottom of stories where, for example, a man had allegedly been attacked and killed by a snakehead while he was spearfishing in pretty bizarre circumstances."
Although some snakeheads can be aggressive around their young, the Florida bullseye seemed relatively placid in comparison to its Asian cousin. For one thing, they don't get too big, only four feet or so. "They do have quite sharp rows of teeth," Wade said, "but they're certainly not as dangerous as some fish I've seen." Considering that Wade's wrestled with bull sharks and pulled half-eaten fish out of the mouths of piranhas, that might not be saying much. He added that at any rate, he didn't see too many Floridians swimming in our canals.
And Broward's snakeheads aren't even particularly well-fed: "They looked a little thin," he said. Scientific opinion, he admits, is divided on how well this invasive species will do here -- whether the snakehead will find a balance with other native wildlife, die out, or take over our canals. So far, his impressioin is that they've been held in check, maybe because of competition for food, maybe by fluctuating water temperatures. They seem to have no natural predators other than, well, Jeremy Wade.
Fishing for the snakeheads, he said, was "pretty challenging." Wade used a lure that he pulled across the water's surface to attract snakeheads up from where they like to lurk near the banks in large numbers. Still, he doesn't think the snakehead is going to be much of a draw for local fishermen who're hooked on catching large-mouth and peacock bass.
Wade, who has a degree in zoology, takes off every other year or so and travels around the world just to live near a river and study the freshwater life for three months or more, doing "my own hands-on research." He hopes to return to Florida. He's heard reports of Florida bull sharks spotted in freshwater and thinks that might make another great show. And besides, he likes the way anybody here can just take off with a fishing pole, throw a line off the nearest bridge, and spend the day his favorite way.
River Monsters' season premiere is Sunday, April 25, at 10 p.m. on Animal Planet. See Wade do battle with Broward's snakehead on Sunday, May 2.