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The Mink Mystery

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I dumped my old imaginary friend. My new one is a woman. She's great. You'll meet her in a sec.

She helped me solve the greatest mystery of my local beachcombing career — seven skulls of the American mink (Neovison vison) washed up together.

(To that one dude reading this who knows the answer: Shut up for once and don't ruin this for everyone else, OK?)

My rational examination of this mystery began with the fact that the ocean sorts stuff. For example, experienced agate hunters know to first look in the upper chunky parts of a gravel bed rather than where all the skipping stones are.

Natural sorting occurs due to the size, shape and density of different objects. Where and when these things wash up depends on currents, wind, surf, tide and the shape of the coastline.

Ocean sorting is like the shaking and swirling of a gold pan. The dense gold settles together. Sometimes sorting on the beach is very specific, too. I've seen aggregations of molted crab legs in one spot and a mass of their back shells nearby. So when beachcombing, if you find a cool thing, look for more.

The one glass fishing float I found was near several old bottles — including a large Coke bottle with "litre" spelled the European way. I believe these items all washed out of the dunes after a period of high surf and erosion, which is another version of sorting.

Another example of ocean sorting is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is an area of concentrated floating plastic debris formed by rotating currents that draw the trash toward the middle. Most plastic bottles I find washed up locally are apparently of local origin. But occasionally I find a bunch of bottles with Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing on them washed up together. These bottles probably got into the ocean in different locations but were drawn together and tossed up.

But there's no way the ocean could separate mink skulls from other small mammal skulls, right? Other local small mammals include skunks, gophers, raccoons, possums, gray foxes, bobcats and otters. Added all together, these animals are far more common than mink. So, if dead mammals are routinely washing out to sea, I'd expect to find at least five other species for every mink.

The seven mink skulls washed up on a low tide during a large, long period storm swell. They were among pieces of water-logged wood, worn aluminum cans, crab parts, dead seastars and one marine mammal vertebra. So I think this stuff had been sitting in a spot below the normal scour depth of the surf and all came up together when the currents finally moved everything with a susceptible size and density.

But none of this explains the mink bias.

Luckily, when rational examination fails, I can always turn to my imaginary friend. I found her at sea in her awesome boat, catching big fish with all her girlfriends in bikinis — just like on all my favorite webcasts. While she was gaffing a halibut she explained that wild minks were protesting in solidarity with fur-farm minks. Sympathetic wild minks, she said, were hunger striking, self-immolating and throwing themselves into the sea.

She even posted a video on my YouTube channel to "honor the heroic minks." The first comment on the video was, "Hey numbnuts, mink carcasses are used for crab bait."

Indeed, the internet says mink carcasses make good Dungeness crab bait and are available for as little as $1 each from mink farms. But maybe you can solve this mystery: Do the bags of bait minks come labeled "not for human consumption" like frozen anchovies?

Biologist Mike Kelly writes science-based satire as M. Sid Kelly. It's available on Amazon.

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