Nov 5: The Second to Last (or The Gross Dissection) leg of the trip

We are currently sitting on a houseboat on the Danube River in Tulcea, Romania, 60 km inland from the mouth of the Danube at the Black Sea. We arrived in Bucharest from Moscow around midnight on Sunday night and planned to catch the train at 6 a.m. on Monday to Tulcea. After catching a ride to the hotel, checking in, and getting to the room we were hoping to get at least 4-5 hours of sleep before heading to the train station. Luckily, before leaving for the train station Eric checked the train schedules for the morning, and found (much to our surprise) that our train wouldn’t be running again. Until December.

OK, so that messes with our plan a bit.

There is another train that leaves Bucharest for Tulcea at around 3:30 p.m., meaning we won’t get in until after 9 p.m., and we will lose the half-working day that was planned. Eric emailed Radu Suciu of the Danube Delta Research Institute (DDRI) to let him know that we would be very late. After breakfast we decide to work in our hotel until check out and then head to the train station to wait for the afternoon train. After breakfast Eric says Radu just emailed and that there is a speed bus at 11, 1 hour from now, leaving Bucharest for Tulcea, and it will take about 4.5 hours. We jump at the opportunity to be moving again.

We arrived in Tulcea around 3:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon after driving through what basically looks like Iowa at this time of year. All of the fields were bare after the harvest. The landscape changes from flat farmland to hills as we near Tulcea. At first only a few hills appeared, as did a very large number of new windmills for power generation. The hills become much more frequent the closer we get to Tulcea, and now, up close, we can see that they are covered in vineyards, which stretch from the top to bottom of almost every hill.

We are here, just as we have been everywhere on this trip, for sturgeon. Specifically, we are here for Acipenser stellatus. More specifically, we are here for their heads, in an odd nod to Vlad Tepes. Though there would be no pikes for these heads, only razor blades for removing the valuable gill arches. As luck would have it there has also recently been a shipment seized of numerous sturgeon of a different species, Acipenser gueldenstaedti. These were from aquaculture in origin, but Radu has arranged for us to take possession of two of these to further our anatomical studies on large adult individuals while here.

This is how we spent every day of the week: dissecting two large adults, down from more than 1 meter in length to less than 12 inches total length, as well as dissecting the heads of two A. stellatus. All of this for continued detailed anatomical study throughout the entire development of sturgeons on return to the VIMS museum. The sturgeon crew at DDRI were amazed at our dedication, and our turning one of their offices into a wet lab, as we disassembled these sturgeons – and they all looked on and learned a bit about the insides of the fishes they had been tracking in the river.

Back at the Danube Delta Research Institute with our frozen sturgeon

Our accommodation in Tulcea is a houseboat hotel that is owned by the DDRI. Mama Lili, and husband Victor, oversee the establishment and are fantastic hosts. A hot breakfast is served at 8 a.m. and a packed lunch is waiting for us when we leave to head up the hill to the DDRI. In the evening we have a feast, 3 courses with homemade soup, a main course, and a dessert. More food than I could honestly dream of eating, but I do my best.

The houseboat on the Danube River that served as home during our stay in Tulcea.

Radu Suciu and his crew at the DDRI are sturgeon kings. There are four extant species that use the Danube River for spawning. That is down only one species from what was historically known to use the river. Acipenser nudiventris – the ship sturgeon (or as we have come to call it, the “humpback sturgeon” because of its extremely large first dorsal scute)– was widely regarded as extirpated from the Danube, although apparently it is still seen occasionally (Radu had a program of interviewing local fishermen, and they have reported seeing this fish as recently as this year; the last photographically documented ship sturgeon from the Danube was seen in 2005 in Hungary). Radu and his crew have worked tirelessly for more than 15 years to try and understand what species are where and why, when they are there and how they move, as well as myriad other questions. They recently began working on the genetics of several of these species – including the giant Beluga (Huso huso) – and I enjoyed discussing my experiences with the genetics of sturgeons with them as we all learned from one another, and discussed our interests in these amazing fishes.

We leave Romania tomorrow for Paris, back to the museum environment, for two days of examining historical collections – including two more type specimens. On to the City of Lights!

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