Alligator gar (
Atractosteus spatula) are ray-finned euryhaline fish
related to bowfin in the infraclass
Holostei (ho'-las-te-i). The
fossil record traces their existence to the
Early Cretaceous over a
hundred million years ago. They are the largest species in the gar
family, and among the largest freshwater fishes in North America. Gars
are often referred to as "primitive fishes", or "living fossils"
because they have retained some morphological characteristics of their
earliest ancestors, such as a spiral valve intestine which is also
common to the digestive system of sharks, and the ability to breathe
both air and water. Their common name was derived from their
resemblance to the American alligator, particularly their broad snout
and long sharp teeth.
Anecdotal evidence in several scientific reports
suggest that an alligator gar can grow up to 10 ft (3.0 m)
in length and weigh as much as 300 lb (140 kg); however in
2011 the largest alligator gar ever caught and officially recorded was
8 ft 5 1⁄4 in (2.572 m) long, weighed
327 lb (148 kg), and was 47 in (120 cm) around the
The body of an alligator gar is torpedo shaped, usually brown or olive
fading to a lighter gray or yellow ventral surface. Their scales are
not like the scales of other fishes; rather, they are ganoid scales
which are bone-like, diamond-shaped scales, often with serrated edges,
and covered by an enamel-like substance.
Ganoid scales are nearly
impenetrable and are excellent protection against predation. Unlike
other gar species, the upper jaw of an alligator gar has a dual row of
large sharp teeth which are used to impale and hold prey. Alligator
gar are stalking, ambush predators, primarily piscivores, but they
will also ambush and eat water fowl and small mammals they find
floating on the water's surface.
Populations of alligator gar have been extirpated from much of their
historic range as a result of habitat destruction, indiscriminate
culling, and unrestricted harvests. Populations are now located
primarily in the southern portions of the
United States extending into
Mexico. They are considered euryhaline because they can adapt to
varying salinities ranging from freshwater lakes and swamps to
brackish marshes, estuaries, and bays along the Gulf of Mexico.
For nearly a half-century, alligator gar were considered "trash
fish", or a "nuisance species" detrimental to sport fisheries;
therefore, were targeted for elimination by state and federal
authorities in the United States. The 1980s brought a better
understanding of the ecological balance necessary to sustain an
ecosystem, and eventually an awareness that alligator gar were no
less important than any other living organism in the ecosystems they
inhabit. Over time, alligator gar were afforded some protection by
state and federal resource agencies. They are also protected under the
Lacey Act which makes it illegal to transport certain species of fish
in interstate commerce when in violation of state law or regulation.
Several state and federal resource agencies are monitoring populations
in the wild, and have initiated outreach programs to educate the
Alligator gar are being cultured in ponds, pools, raceways and
tanks by federal hatcheries for mitigation stocking, by universities
for research purposes, and in
Mexico for consumption.
3 Taxonomy and evolution
4 Feeding behavior
6.1 Natural range
6.2 Outside natural range
7 Human utilization
7.1 Early history
7.2 Sport fish
7.3 Commercialization and aquaculture
9 Further reading
10 External links
Preserved display of an alligator gar head
Alligator gar are the largest species in the gar family, and among the
largest freshwater fishes found in North America. Mature alligator gar
commonly measure 6 ft (1.8 m) in length, and weigh over
100 lbs. (45 kg). However, anecdotal reports suggest they
can grow up to 10 ft (3m) in length, and weigh as much as
350 lbs. (159 kg). The largest alligator gar officially
recorded was inadvertently caught in the net of fisherman Kenny
Vicksburg, Mississippi while he was fishing the oxbow
lakes of the
Mississippi River on February 14, 2011. Williams was
pulling up his net on Lake Chotard expecting to find buffalo fish, but
instead discovered a large alligator gar tangled in his net. The gar
was 8 ft 5 1⁄4 in (2.572 m) long, weighed
327 lb (148 kg), and its girth was 47 in (120 cm).
According to wildlife officials, the fish was estimated to be
somewhere between 50 and 70 years old; one report estimated the gar's
age to be at least 95. Williams donated it to the Mississippi
Museum of Natural Science in Jackson where it will remain on
Gill of a juvenile gar
All gars have torpedo-shaped bodies, but some distinguishing
characteristics of adult alligator gar include their large size, heavy
bodies, broad heads, short broad snouts, large sharp teeth and double
row of teeth on their upper jaw. They are usually brown or olive
fading to a lighter gray or yellow ventral surface. The dorsal and
anal fins are positioned toward the back of their bodies, and their
caudal fin is abbreviate-heterocercal, or non-symmetrical.
Alligator gar have gills, but unlike other species of fish, with few
exceptions, they also have a highly vascularized swim bladder lung
that supplements gill respiration. The bladder not only provides
buoyancy but also enables them to breathe in air which is why they are
able to inhabit bodies of water in which most other fishes would die
of suffocation. The swim bladder is connected to their foregut by a
small pneumatic duct which allows them to breathe or gulp air when
they break the surface, an action that is seen quite frequently on
lakes in the southern
United States during the hot summer months. The
scales of alligator gar are not like the scales of other fishes which
have flexible elasmoid scales; their bodies are protected by
inflexible and articulated ganoid scales that are diamond-shaped,
often with serrated edges, and composed of a tough inner layer of bone
and hard outer layer of ganoin which is essentially homologous to
tooth enamel, making them nearly impenetrable.
Taxonomy and evolution
Lacépède first described the alligator gar in 1803. The original
name was Lepisosteus spatula, but was later changed by E.O. Wiley in
Atractosteus spatula in order to recognize two distinct extant
taxon of gars. Synonyms of
Atractosteus spatula include Lesisosteus
[sic] ferox (Rafinesque 1820), and
Lepisosteus spatula (Lacepede
1803). Fossils from the order
Lepisosteiformes have been collected in
Europe from the
Oligocene periods, in Africa and India
from the Cretaceous, and in
North America from the
recent times. Lepisosteidae is the only extant family of gar which has
seven species all located in North and Central America. The fossil
record traces the existence of alligator gar back to the Early
Cretaceous over a hundred million years ago. Despite being a
highly evolved species, alligator gar are often referred to as
"primitive fishes", or "living fossils" because they have
retained a few morphological characteristics of their earliest
ancestors with seemingly little to no apparent changes, such as a
spiral valve intestine which is also common to the digestive system of
sharks, an abbreviate-heterocercal tail, and a swim bladder lung for
breathing in both air and water.
Alligator gar are stalking, ambush predators
Alligator gar are relatively passive, seemingly sluggish solitary
fish, but voracious ambush predators. They are opportunistic night
predators and are primarily piscivores, but they will also ambush and
eat water fowl and small mammals that may be floating on the surface.
Their method of ambush is to float a few feet below the surface, and
wait for unsuspecting prey to swim within reach. They lunge forward,
and with a sweeping motion grab their prey, impaling it on their
double rows of sharp teeth.
Diet studies have shown alligator gar to be opportunistic piscivores,
and even scavengers depending on the availability of their preferred
food source. They occasionally ingest sport fish, but the majority of
stomach content studies suggest they feed predominately on forage
fishes such as gizzard shad as well as invertebrates, and water fowl.
Diet studies have also revealed fishing tackle and boat engine parts
in their stomachs.
As with most ancestral species, alligator gar are long living, and
sexually late maturing. Most females do not reach sexual maturity
until after their first decade of life while males reach sexual
maturity in half that time. The conditions must be precise for a
successful spawning to occur. Preparation for spawning begins in the
spring with the extended photoperiod and rising water temperatures,
but flooding is also necessary to trigger the event. When rivers rise
and spread over the floodplain, they create oxbow lakes and sloughs,
and inundate terrestrial vegetation which in turn provides protection
and a nutrient rich habitat for larval fishes, and fry. Once the water
temperature has reached 68 to 82 °F (20 to 28 °C), and all
the other criteria are met, gars will move into the grassy, weed-laden
shallows to spawn.
Actual spawning occurs when a collection of males gather around gravid
females, and begin writhing, twisting, bumping into and slithering
over the tops of females, an activity which triggers the release of
eggs. Males release clouds of milt to fertilize the eggs as they are
released into the water column. The sticky eggs then attach to
submerged vegetation, and development begins. It takes only a few days
for the eggs to hatch into larval fish, and another ten days or so for
the larval fish to detach from the vegetation and start moving about
as young fry. Egg production is variable, and believed to be
dependent on the size of the female. A common formula used for
predicting the volume of eggs a female can produce is 4.1 eggs/gram of
body weight which gives an average of about 150,000 eggs per spawn.
The eggs of alligator gar are bright red and poisonous to humans if
Alligator gar caught in Moon Lake, Mississippi, March 1910
Alligator gar inhabit a wide variety of aquatic habitats, but most are
found in the Southern
United States in reservoirs and lakes, in the
backwaters of lowland rivers, and in the brackish waters of estuaries,
bayous and bays. They have occasionally been seen in the Gulf of
Mexico. In Texas and Louisiana it is common to see large gars
breaking the surface in reservoirs, bayous, and brackish marshes. They
are found throughout the lower
Mississippi River Valley and Gulf Coast
states of the Southern
United States and
Mexico as far south as
Veracruz, encompassing the following states in the United States:
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee,
Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Florida, and Georgia. Reports
suggest alligator gar were once numerous throughout much of their
northern range, however valid sightings today are rare, and may occur
once every few years. Records of historical distribution indicate
alligator gar once inhabited regions as far north as central Kansas,
Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, and west-central Illinois where they are now
listed as extirpated. The most northerly verified catch was in
Meredosia, Illinois in 1922. There are now efforts to reintroduce
alligator gar between Tennessee and Illinois as part of an effort to
control invasive Asian carp.
Outside natural range
A few notable sightings of alligator gar have been reported outside
North America. In November 2008, a broadhead gar, genus Atractosteus,
measuring 5.2 to 6.4 ft (1.6 to 2.0 m) was caught in the
Caspian Sea north of Esenguly,
Turkmenistan by two officials of
Turkmenistan Fishery Protection. Its species is unconfirmed but is
believed to be an alligator gar.
On September 4, 2009 a 3 ft 3 in (0.99 m) alligator gar
was found in Tak Wah Park in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. Over the next two
days, at least 16 other alligator gar, the largest measuring
4.9 ft (1.5 m), were found in ponds in public parks in Hong
Kong. Nearby residents reported the alligator gar had been
released into the ponds by aquarium hobbyists, and had lived there for
several years. However, after a complaint made by a citizen who
falsely identified alligator gar as crocodiles, the use of terms like
"horrible man-eating fish" had begun appearing in the headlines of
some major local newspapers. Officials with Leisure and Cultural
Services in Tak Wah Park removed all the alligator gar from the ponds
because they were concerned the large, carnivorous fish might harm
children. It is not unusual for the large sharp teeth and outward
appearance of alligator gar to precipitate unreasonable fear in those
unfamiliar with the species. Sensationalized reports have contributed
to the misconception of predatory attacks by alligator gar on humans
even though none of the reports have been confirmed.
On January 21, 2011, an alligator gar measuring 4 ft 11 in
(1.50 m) was caught in a canal in Pasir Ris,
Singapore by two
recreational fishermen. The fish was taken to a nearby pond where the
owner confirmed it was an alligator gar rather than an arapaima as the
men had initially thought.
There have been anecdotal reports of alligator gar captured in various
parts of India but are believed to be the result of incidental
releases by aquarium hobbyists and the like. In August 2015, an
alligator gar was found entangled in cloth inside a well in Dadar
where it had been living for quite some time. It was rescued by animal
activists and returned to the well unharmed. In June 2016, a
Gar was caught from Subhash Sarovar Lake in
Kolkata. Other incidents over the years have been random, ranging
anywhere from captures in coastal waters during environmental
assessments to captures in private ponds.
Native Americans in the south, and Caribbean peoples used the
alligator gar's ganoid scales for arrow heads, breastplates, and as
shielding to cover plows. Early settlers tanned the skins to make a
strong, durable leather to cover their wooden plows, make purses, and
various other items.
Gar oil was also used by the people of Arkansas
as a repellent for buffalo-gnats.
For nearly half a century, alligator gar were considered "trash
fish", or a "nuisance species" by state and federal authorities who
targeted them for elimination to protect game fish populations, and
to prevent alleged attacks on humans, a claim that remains
unsubstantiated with the exception of occasional injuries sustained
from captured alligator gar thrashing around on the decks of
boats. Fishermen participated in the slaughter of thousands of
alligator gar believing they were providing a great service. From
KUHT channel 8, a member
PBS television station located on
the campus of the University of Houston, presented for national
broadcast the first video documentary ever produced on alligator gar.
The documentary, "
Alligator Gar:Predator or Prey?", debuted nationally
in prime time during the 1992 July
Sweeps drawing a 2.8 rating/4
share. According to the
Nielsen rating report, it was the number one
rated program of the evening. In January 1995, it was again the
highest rated program in primetime with a 3.5 rating/6 share. The
documentary focused on the physiology and life cycle of alligator gar,
addressed the destruction of habitat, the unregulated culling and over
harvesting of alligator gar from various lakes in Texas and Louisiana,
and expressed concerns for the future of the species at a time when
they were still considered a "trash fish". A decade passed before
any significant action was taken to protect and preserve the remaining
populations of alligator gar in the United States. The Missouri
Department of Conservation has since partnered with Tennessee,
Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma,
and Louisiana in restoration and management activities.
6 ft (1.8 m) 129 lb (59 kg) alligator gar caught
by Steve Zeug and Clint Robertson, Brazos River, Texas, 2004
The long time public perception of alligator gar as "trash fish", or a
"nuisance species" has changed with increasing national and
international attention on the species as a sport fish which some have
attributed to features on popular television shows. Oklahoma, Texas,
Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana allow regulated sport fishing of
alligator gar. Texas has one of the best remaining fisheries for
alligator gar, and in concert with its efforts to maintain a viable
fishery, imposed a one-per-day bag limit on them in 2009. The
Texas state record, and world record for the largest alligator gar
caught on rod and reel is 279 lb (127 kg), taken by Bill
Valverde on January 1, 1951 on the Rio Grande in Texas. Alligator
gar are also quite popular among bowfishers because of their large
size, trophy potential, and fighting ability. The Texas state
bowfishing record was set In 2001 by Marty McClellan with a
290 lb (130 kg) alligator gar from the Trinity River. The
all-tackle record was a 302 lb (137 kg) alligator gar caught
on a trotline in 1953 by T.C. Pierce, Jr. In 1991, fishing guide Kirk
Kirkland anecdotally reported catching an alligator gar measuring
9 ft 6 in (2.90 m) on rod and line from the Trinity
Commercialization and aquaculture
Declining populations of alligator gar throughout their historic range
has resulted in the need to monitor wild populations and regulate
Alligator gar have a high yield of white meat
fillets and a small percentage of waste relative to body weight. The
meat is sold to wholesale distributors, and also sold retail by a few
supermarkets with prices starting at around $3.00/lb. Fried gar balls,
grilled fillets, and fillets boiled in water with crab boil seasoning
are popular dishes in the south. There is also a small cottage
industry that makes jewelry out of ganoid scales, and tans gar hides
to produce leather for making lamp shades, purses, and a host of
Atractosteus gars, including alligator gar, tropical gars, and Cuban
gars are considered good candidates for aquaculture particularly in
developing regions where their rapid growth, disease resistance, easy
adaptation to artificial feeds as juveniles, and ability to tolerate
low water quality are essential. Their ability to breathe in both air
and water eliminates the need for costly aeration systems and other
technology commonly used in aquaculture. In the Southern United
States, as well as in parts of
Mexico and Cuba, broodstocks have
already been established, and are being maintained in their respective
regions where they already are a popular food fish.
Alligator gar maneuvering with pectoral fins in large zoo aquarium
Despite the large size alligator gar can attain, they are kept as
aquarium fish, though many fish labeled as "alligator gar" in the
aquarium trade are actually smaller species.
Alligator gar require a
very large aquarium or pond, and ample resources in order for them to
thrive in captivity. They are also a popular fish for public aquaria,
and zoos. It is illegal in many areas to keep alligator gar as pets,
but they will occasionally show up in fish stores.
Alligator gar are
highly prized and sought after for private aquaria, particularly in
Japan. According to some reports, large alligator gar could fetch as
much as US$40,000 in what some consider the "Japanese black
market". In June 2011, three men from Florida and Louisiana were
indicted on charges of illegally removing wild alligator gar from the
Trinity River in Texas, and attempting to ship them to Japan for
private collectors. The indictments resulted from an undercover sting
operation by special agents with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service,
the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission. The charges included violations
of three separate provisions of the Lacey Act, specifically conspiracy
to submit a false label for fish transported in interstate commerce;
conspiracy to transport fish in interstate commerce in violation of
state law or regulation; and conspiracy to transport and sell fish in
interstate commerce in violation of state law or regulation. Two
of the conspirators entered guilty pleas to one count, and the
government dropped the other two charges against them. A third
conspirator went to trial on all three counts, was acquitted on one
count, and found guilty on two. The district court sentenced him to
serve nine months in prison followed by one year of supervised
release. The case was appealed, and on April 15, 2014, the
appellate court affirmed the judgment of the district court.
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