This Week in Sinister Evolutionary Leaps

Anyone who has ever read Stephen Jay Gould or sat through an X-Men voiceover narration is familiar with the concept of punctuated equilibrium - the idea that evolutionary development happens not incrementally but in random, periodic bursts.

Evolution has taken its latest great leap forward, and it has chosen the European catfish to serve as its vessel. Scientific journal PLoS One published the hauntingly titled "Freshwater Killer Whales": Beaching Behavior of an Alien Fish to Hunt Land Birds earlier this week, wherein scientists examined previously unobserved beaching behavior in the river-dwelling species. Researchers recorded over 50 instances of the grotesquely whiskered bottom-feeders hurling themselves bodily out of their natural habitat to wrest nearby pigeons - pigeons! winged, capable-of-flight pigeons! -into the dank and murky riverbed to be drowned and consumed.

Last month I received a tip that promised video footage of a pelican eating a pigeon; the source was reliable and the footage was produced. Upon further investigation, I discovered an entire series of videos on YouTube dedicated exclusively to documenting the pigeon-consumption process (it is horrifying and borderline unwatchable, but also incredible). This is at least understandable. Large birds can and do eat other birds; they are both denizens of the sky. It is right and natural that they should inhabit different rungs on the same food chain. But for a fish to seek to prey above its rightful station bodes ill. At the time, I did not believe that a video of a bird being eaten, however bizarrely, to be newsworthy; how innocent I was then.

Native American media network Indian Country describes the blasphemous process:

And one group of European catfish, the continent's largest freshwater fish at up to 1.5 meters long, have learned to launch themselves out of the water, clench a pigeon in their jaws, writhe back into the water and proceed to dine.

They also have a video of the fish in action, should you choose to watch in order to prepare yourself for when the catfish inevitably develop a taste for more challenging prey.

(Recent years have brought with them a flurry of challenges to Gould's work, by the way; here and here are two good places to start if you are interested in learning more.)

[Image via PLoS One]