Sunday, August 5, 2018

Kugtong - Giant Lapulapu

 Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature - School on Blog

I am a witness of a pair of giant lapulapu (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. 

Groupers (lapu-lapu).  Giant lapulapu is locally called kugtong. (Photo credit Internet)

So huge are these overgrown lapulapu 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 truck. I examined the fish; its body is coarse and shaggy, covered with seaweeds and tiny mollusks, 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.

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 is mystery in the biology of lapulapu 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 being 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.

So 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 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 groupers, considering their varied genera and species, and worldwide distribution could yet reveal other amazing facts about the kugtong.  At least we are sure the kugtong does exists. 

How dangerous is the kugtong?  It has the strategy of lying in wait, rather than chase in open water. It swallows prey rather than bite pieces of it. According to a report, there is at least one record, from Mozambique, of a human being killed by one of these fish.

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.”

NOTE: Groupers belong to a number of genera, the biggest being Epinephelus and Mycteroperca of then Family Serranidae, Order Perciformes. Not all serranids are called groupers; the family also includes the sea basses.
Their mouth and gills form a powerful sucking system that sucks their prey in from a distance. They also use their mouth to dig into sand to form their shelters under big rocks, jetting it out through their gills. Their gill muscles are so powerful that it is nearly impossible to pull them out of their cave if they feel attacked and extend those muscles to lock themselves in. Many groupers are important food fish, and some of them are now farmed. Unlike most other fish species which are chilled or frozen, groupers are usually sold alive in markets. Many species are popular fish for sea angling. Some species are small enough to be kept in aquaria, though even the small species are inclined to grow rapidly. (Wikipedia)

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