North Carolina

Has the invasive snakehead spread to North Carolina waters? Here’s how to identify it

Snakeheads closely resemble bowfin, which is why N.C. officials posted photos of the two side by side for comparison.
Snakeheads closely resemble bowfin, which is why N.C. officials posted photos of the two side by side for comparison. Facebook screenshot

News that an invasive air-breathing fish has been found in Georgia waters has prompted North Carolina officials to warn it could show up here, too, and they’re offering tips to identify it.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission shared photos of the northern snakehead on Friday, and advised anyone who finds one to kill it and freeze it -- or freeze it to kill it -- then contact authorities to come get the body.

Freezing snakeheads is a way to assure they’re dead -- sort of like shooting zombies in the head. They are voracious eaters of other fish, birds and mammals, and have an otherworldly ability to survive on land for up to four days, experts say.

“Remember, it’s unlawful to transport, purchase, possess or sell live snakehead in our state,” the commission posted Friday. “If you catch a snakehead in North Carolina, do NOT release it!”

Snakeheads have been found in 14 states, including Virginia, according to Smithsonianmag.com.

They closely resemble bowfin, which is why N.C. officials posted photos of the two side by side for comparison. Coloration of the two fish is different, with the snakehead looking more like a python. Snakeheads also have a longer anal fin (lower body fin) that is about half the length of their body.

Northern snakeheads, which grow to 3 feet, are native to China, but a fisherman caught one this month in a private pond in Gwinnett County, Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources officials. How it got there remains a mystery.

The federal Aquatic Nuisance Species Task Force says snakeheads can “survive for up to four days out of the water” and longer if they burrow into mud. “This unique adaptation” allows them to travel from one body of water to another “by wiggling their bodies over the ground,” the task force says.

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Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.
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