The Last Burbot in Britain

Last burbot

Collections Manager Matt Lowe writes:

Burbot or laywer fish (with apologies to lawyers), Lota lota (Linnaeus, 1758)

“They’re called lawyer fish here because when you cut them open their hearts are close to their [censored]”.

I won’t fill in the blank in that sentence, and I’m not sure of the anatomical accuracy of it, but I was on board a small fishing boat on Washington Island, Wisconsin, with a Captain who claimed to be the only person on Lake Michigan who commercially fished for Lota lota – otherwise known as the burbot in the UK or the lawyer fish in the US. I had heard they were called lawyer fish because they inhabit the murky depths, but my friend assured me his explanation was better.  I tried a morsel, fried at the nearby restaurant – delicious, just like cod to which they are closely related. What left a particularly odd taste in my mouth however the fact that this species is extinct in the U.K.

September is a particularly bad month for infamous extinctions; the 1st represents the demise of the passenger pigeon (1914), on the 7th the last known tasmanian tiger passed away (1936). Fifty years ago this month, on the 14th September 1969, a fisherman named John Dean near Aldreth, Cambridgeshire hauled in what would turn out to be the last confirmed sighting of burbot in the U.K. waters. The significance of this did not go unnoticed and the specimen was quickly preserved and donated to the University Museum of Zoology. Today you can see it in the centre of the lower gallery, within a display about changing habitats where you’ll learn that 100 years before, in 1869, local natural historian legend Leonard Jenyns noted that they were “Common in the Cam, and in the navigable cuts communicating with that river”. It seems that within a 100 years habit loss had caused an irreversible decline.

However, this is very much our loss – the burbot persists from Europe to the Bering Straits and across North America where it inhabits typically deep cold lake and river environments. Feeding on a range of prey from invertebrates to fish, the adults vary in size from 1 to 12kg. There is some debate, given the variance and their huge range, about whether or not the burbot is actually a single species or many. At the very least there are subtle differences in the global populations, which is why back in 2010 I found myself taking tissue samples from our specimens to help a study into the relationships between U.K. burbots and those of mainland Europe. Go back 10,000 years or so and Britain was a peninsular of land, where the river systems (and presumably burbots) of the east where intertwined with those of the Netherlands and Belgium until the post-glacial influx of the North Sea isolated our own population.

There is much talk, sometimes controversially, of reintroducing species once common to the U.K. Beavers have been reintroduced and there are discussions underway involving other iconic creatures such as wolves and lynxes. But perhaps gaining less attention is the idea to bring back the burbot. If we were do so, museum specimens such as ours have a crucial role to play in establishing which of the surviving populations prove to be the closest living relatives to our own extirpated lawyers.

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