for National Geographic News
Florida boaters can heave a collective sigh of relief as the last of the Gulf sturgeon head to their winter feeding grounds in the Gulf of Mexico.
The fish's leaping ability and its sizethe Gulf species can grow to between six and nine feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) long and weigh 200 pounds (90 kilograms)have led to close encounters of a dangerous kind for boaters.
Last summer, at least four people were injured when the fish with prehistoric roots leapt out of the water and crashed into them.
The injuries were not minor; they included concussions, broken ribs and sternum, a collapsed lung, cracked teeth, and gashes requiring stitches.
Still, biologists laugh at the media's characterization of the incidents as "attacks."
"This fish is a living dinosaur," said Frank Parauka, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It's a really docile fish, easily exploited."
He likens the encounters to deer crossing in front of vehicles. "These things just happen," he said.
If the incidents are happening more often, it's almost certainly because there are more boaters on the rivers today.
Sturgeon first appear in the fossil record about 225 million years ago, and they've been leaping ever since. But why do they jump?
"The big ones are the most noticeable, especially when they're jumping in the boat and taking out the driver. But all sturgeon jump," said Daniel Roberts, a research scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute.
"There are several theories about why they jump, but no real proof to back up any of them."
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