Friday, June 22, 2012

Have you seen a kugtong or giant lapu-lapu?

Dr Abe V Rotor

"If there is a Coelacanth long thought to have been extinct that lives in the craggy bottom of Madagascar Sea, we have our own kugtong, the biggest coral dwelling fish." (AVR) 

 In the craggy depth of the sea lies a monster - the giant lapu-lapu or grouper. Fishermen in the area respect the niche of this benthic creature. They tell stories of missing pets and fishermen, of mysterious encounters that turn the sea inside out, a battle between a kugtong and a giant squid or whale. These are stories of fishermen and are often exaggerated. 

At SEAFDEC (Southeast Asia Fisheries Development Center) along the coast of Iloilo, lapulapu is cultured and studied in captivity.  The making of a giant is evident in one of these photos. The longivity of the fish may be the same as that of man, and a full grown has a mouth so huge it can engulf its prey whole and alive.  

I saw two giant lapu-lapu (kugtong) in Sablayan Occidental Mindoro caught by local fishermen sometime in 1982. I had been hearing kugtong since childhood, a threat to fishermen and picnickers because it could swallow a whole human being, and here with my own eyes the kugtong in Lola Basiang’s story is true after all. So huge are these overgrown lapu-lapu that two men could hardly carry one of them with a bamboo pole on their shoulders.  A third man had to lift its tail from the ground as they inched their way to a waiting vehicle. I examined the fish; its body is coarse and shaggy, covered with seaweeds and barnacles, and had lost all semblance of the favorite lapulapu on our dining table. But this makes a perfect camouflage that suits the predatory habit of this benthic fish.  By the way, it is the female lapu-lapu that attains this enormous size.  The male is a diminutive partner permanently attached to her body, indeed a very special kind of relationship in the animal world.    

There is a story about a kugtong that lived under the old pier of San Fernando, La Union. For a long time the strange fish was feared by the residents and many animals around had mysteriously disappeared.  Then the local fishermen decided to catch it with a big hook luring the fish with a live piglet as bait.  The fish took it and struggled until it was finally subdued.  It was hauled by many men and if the story is accurate it took a six-by-six truck to transport it.

There are giants in the deep.  After the tsunami in 2004 that hit the Indian Ocean, by coincidence I saw giant squids measuring 3 feet long being sold at the SM Fairview supermarket. I surmise that these were flushed out from their deep dwellings and landed in the fisherman’s net when the calamity struck. I remember the giant squid that almost sank Captain Nemo’s submarine in Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”  

There is mystery in the biology of lapu-lapu- or grouper, as it is known worldwide. Groupers are hermaphroditic, which means that sex switch from male to female and vice versa. The young are predominantly female but transform into males as they grow to about a kilogram in a year, remaining adolescent until they reach three kilos. From here they become females. But wait. When they are about 10 to 12 kg they turn to males and grow very, very big. Lengths over a meter and weights up to 100 kg are not uncommon.

A newspaper reported a 396.8 pound grouper caught off the waters near Pulau Sembilan in the Straits of Malacca in 2008. Shenzhen newspaper reported that a 1.8 meter grouper swallowed a 1.0 meter whitetip reef shark at the Fuzhou Sea World aquarium.

I asked my friend Dr. Anselmo S Cabigan, a fellow biologist. “What is really the sex of a full grown kugtong, such as those I found in Mindoro?”

In my research it is male. The male is larger and wilder than the female, and I use as analogy the bull to the cow, rooster to hen, peacock to peahen, lion to lioness. 

Dr Cabigan thinks it otherwise. The female is larger, in fact much larger, that the male is virtually a remora-size creature attached to the female. I imagine the huge size of the queen termite as compared to the tiny king termite. The enigma of the grouper, considering its diversity, and worldwide distribution could yet reveal other amazing facts about the kugtong. Among the institutions working on the kugtong is SEAFDEC, which admits its biology and ecology remain a mystery.   

 At least we are sure the kugtong does exist. ~

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