How Much Do You Know About the Fish called an ALLIGATOR GAR?
Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula)Alligator gars are ray-finned euryhaline fish. Fossil records trace their existence back over a hundred million years ago! They are the largest fish in the gar family and among the largest freshwater fish in North America. People refer to them as “primitive fish” or “living fossils,” they can breathe both above and below water. Their common name was derived from the American alligator, particularly due to their broad snout and long sharp teeth, including two rows on the upper jaw.
The largest Alligator Gar recorded weighed 132 pounds and was caught by researchers in the Yelllow River in 2011. On average, they only weigh about 60 pounds. The alligator gar only lives west of the Apalachicola River.
Alligator Gar Vs. Other Fish Species
Understanding the Gar Species
Key Differences Among Gar
- The alligator gar, or atractosteus spatula, is the largest of the gar in Florida waterways. While you cannot go alligator gar fishing in Florida, there are other species that can be legally caught: the spotted, longnose, and Florida gar.
- Spotted gar and all other gars are able to gulp air to breathe air outside of water, just like the alligator gar. Spotted gar, as their name suggests, have dark spots on the head and body.
- Like alligator gar, Longnose gar are able to eat small mammals even though they are about half the size of their larger relatives. Longnose gar in Florida will also catch fish like gizzard shad and bullhead catfish. Longnose gar are found in many more areas, so you are much more likely to come across a Longnose than an alligator gar.
- The Florida gar has a much narrower snout and thinner body than the alligator gar. They eat smaller prey like shrimp, zooplankton, and tiny fish. Florida gar live in canals, streams, and lakes with muddy bottoms.
ALLIGATOR GAR HABITAT
Throughout time, these fish have been pushed out of their historic ranges by culling, harvesting, and habitat destruction. Populations are now concentrated in the lower Mississippi River Valley and Mexico. Alligator gar can only be found in parts of North and Central America. In Florida waters, they are more likely to be found within Florida’s panhandle and are considered euryhaline fish because they can adapt to a variety of water salinities ranging from freshwater to brackish and estuaries. They have been long considered a “nuisance species” that had a negative impact on sport fisheries and, therefore, targeted for elimination. The last ten years have seen a greater emphasis on the gar’s importance to their habitats, affording them protection through restricted licensing.
SIZE & APPEARANCE
While certain reports suggest they can grow up to 10 feet long and weigh as much as 300 pounds, the largest alligator gar ever caught measured 8.5 feet long and weighed in at 327 pounds. Alligator gars have a torpedo-shaped body that is usually brown or olive, fading to a lighter grey or yellow. Rather than having the typical scales, alligator gars have ganoid scales, which give them armored bodies to protect against predation. Unlike other garfish, alligator gars have doubled rows of large sharp teeth in their upper jaw for impaling and holding prey.
Diet of Alligator Gar
Alligator gars are stalking, ambush predators that are primarily piscivores. Alligator gars tend to catch and hold prey by slashing their long, broad snouts to the side as they chomp down with rows of sharp teeth. Researchers are also learning new information about the gar’s feeding habits. A new study has discovered how they can create suction within their jaws to simply open their mouths and suck in smaller fish or krill. These freshwater fish can ambush and eat waterfowl and small mammals that may be floating on the water’s surface. Their hunting patterns categorize them as opportunistic, and sometimes even scavenging, eaters.
Environmental Impact of Alligator Gar Fishing
The alligator gar plays an important role in the Everglades ecosystem as a predatory fish. Like the wolves in Yellowstone or the sharks in the ocean, gar help maintain healthy population levels of fish.
The challenge with gar is that they may prey on more recreationally attractive fish. This has often led to them being hunted with the intent of extermination.
Today, a better understanding of the role of gar has created better regulations and fishing habits around them. As one of the largest freshwater fish, this one is a real fighter and often brings tourists looking for a challenging freshwater fish to take on.
While gar is traditionally hunted by snare fishing, spear fishing or bow fishing, in Florida, the only fishing of gar that is allowed is through a catch and release research permit. This means gar can only be fished through using baiting techniques that can allow the fish to be released afterwards.
The alligator gar is harder to bait with rod and reel, but cut baits can work on this fish.
ALLIGATOR GAR FUN FACTS
- Most alligator gar females do not reach sexual maturity until after ten years of life, while males do so in less than half that time.
- Native Americans would catch alligator gar and use their scales for arrowheads, breastplates, and shielding to cover plows. Early settlers went alligator gar fishing and used their skin to make various items, including purses. People in Arkansas used their oil as buffalo gnat repellant.
- Fossil records trace the alligator gar’s existence back to the Early Cretaceous period – that’s over a hundred million years ago!
FAQs About Alligator Gar
- Why are alligator gars considered one of the largest freshwater fish in North America? These giant fish can grow larger than many other species and have few natural predators, so they can live for decades as they keep growing.
- How do alligator gars adapt to varying water salinities from freshwater to brackish environments? They prefer sluggish pools, freshwater lakes, and slow-moving rivers but are able to tolerate brackish waters in Mississippi and the Florida panhandle. The alligator gar will even tolerate salt water in Florida!
- Is the alligator gar commonly found in the Mississippi River? Alligator gar are no longer commonly found in many areas and are considered rare or endangered in many states. They will inhabit coastal rivers in the southern states like Florida and Alabama.
- Why is the alligator gar sometimes referred to as a “nuisance species” by certain fisheries? Commercial and sport fishing thought of alligator gar as ‘trash fish’ because of how they compete with and disturb more desirable fish as well as how they can interfere with sport fishing. The largest alligator gar caught on sport fisherman lines often needs the line cut since these enormous fish can be so difficult to reel in.
- What role do alligator gars play in the Yellow River ecosystem? The Florida Alligator Gar is a top carnivore in the Yellow River and an important part of a river’s ecosystem. They can help keep other species of fish in check when they are present.
- What is the weight of the largest alligator gar ever caught? An adult alligator gar accidentally caught by a fisherman on Lake Chotard was 8.5 feet in length and weighed 327 pounds!
- How has the Fish and Wildlife Service contributed to the conservation of alligator gars? The Fish and Wildlife Service has put restrictions on catching and possessing alligator gar when fishing. In Florida, you can not go fishing for alligator gar without a special license. Other states, like Alabama, limit how many alligator gar can be caught. FWS biologists are targeting conservation efforts such as working to track and study alligator gar’s movement and breeding to help their numbers rebound.