Atractosteus spatula is found in the Ohio River in southwestern Ohio and the Mississippi river south to the Gulf of Mexico. They are found in drainages throughout the southeastern coastal United States (Alligator Gar, 2005). They are found in parts of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (Knopf, 2002; Shultz, 2004). Their range is from 44° to 20° north latitude and 101° to 82° west longitude (Agbayani, 2005).
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
- 2005. "Alligator Gar" (On-line). Accessed October 20, 2005 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alligator_gar.
- Agbayani, E. 2005. "Atractosteus spatula" (On-line). Accessed October 20, 2005 at http://www.fishbase.org/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?id=1073.
- Knopf, A. 2002. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Fishes. New York: Chanticleer Press, Inc..
- Schultz, K. 2004. Ken Shultz’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fish. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Global Range: (200,000-2,500,000 square km (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)) Historical range included the Mississippi River basin from southwestern Ohio (Trautman 1981), southern Indiana, and southern Illinois (Smith 1979) to the Gulf of Mexico; also the Gulf Coastal Plain from the Florida panhandle (Gilbert 1992) to Veracruz, Mexico, with disjunct occurrences in Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica (Wiley 1976, Lee et al. 1980). Now the species is extirpated or very rare in most of the northern part of the range north of the Gulf Coastal Plain. A single 1.5-m-long individual has been reported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California; this introduction was attributed to release by an aquarium hobbyist (Raquel 1992). No other non-native occurrences in the United States are known (Fuller et al. 1999).
Alligator gar are grayish green to brown color on their dorsal surface and yellowish or white colored ventrally (Page and Burr, 1991). They may also have brownish spots on their dorsal surface. They are alligator-like in appearance, with their long, slender body, jaws armed with many teeth, and their habit of floating at the water surface (Goddard 2005). Their eyes are small. They have a heterocercal tail. Their swim bladder can function as a lung. The snout is short and broad with two rows of teeth on the upper jaw (Etnier 1993, Knopf, 2002). They are protected by a thick set of ganoid scales (Knopf 2002). This species is the largest of the gars and one of the largest freshwater fishes in North America, growing to nearly 3 meters long and up to 137 kg. Lateral line scales number 58 to 62 (Etnier, 1993).
Range mass: 137 (high) kg.
Range length: 3 (high) m.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; heterothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
- Goddard, N. 2005. "Alligator Gar" (On-line). Ichthyology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed December 03, 2005 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Gallery/Descript/AlligatorGar/AlligatorGar.html.
- Page, L., B. Burr. 1991. Peterson Field Guides: Freshwater Fishes. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Length: 305 cm
Catalog Number: USNM 1003
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Fishes
Collector(s): D. Couch
Locality: Matamora, Mexico.(Tamaulipas), North America
- Type: Girard, C. F. 1858. Reports of explorations and surveys, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. 10: 353.
Alligator gar are found in large lakes, rivers, and bayous. Typically they are found in backwaters and bottomland swamps. They are found in both freshwater and brackish waters, they rarely enter marine waters (Etnier, 1993; Knopf, 2002).
Range depth: 0-1 (low) m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; freshwater
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams; brackish water
Other Habitat Features: estuarine
- Etnier, D., W. Starnes. 1993. The Fishes of Tennessee. Knoxville, TN: University OF Tennessee Press.
Habitat Type: Freshwater
Comments: Habitat includes sluggish pools of large rivers and their bayous, oxbow lakes, swamps, and backwaters, rarely brackish or marine waters along the coast (Page and Burr 2011). Spawning occurs over vegetation in warm shallow water (e.g., see Garcia de Leon et al. 2001). Spawning may occur in an impoundment (Lake Texoma) in Oklahoma (Boschung and Mayden 2004, Miller and Robison 2004). Young may float at the surface among twigs and leaves (Boschung and Mayden 2004).
Non-Migrant: No. All populations of this species make significant seasonal migrations.
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).
Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.
Alligator gars are opportunistic carnivores and sit-and-wait predators. They appear to be sluggish, but can ambush prey with short bursts of speed (Goddard, 2005). They feed on almost anything, including fish, ducks, turtles, small mammals, and carrion (Schultz, 2004).
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; amphibians; reptiles; fish; carrion ; aquatic crustaceans
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates, Piscivore )
Comments: Eats mostly fishes and crabs and occasionally other small vertebrates (e.g., see Seidensticker 1987, Garcia de Leon et al. 2001).
Alligator gars are generalist predators and eat anything they can find. They are especially important as top predators in aquatic systems (Goddard, 2005).
Alligator gars have few predators. They may be eaten by larger fish as eggs, fry, and juveniles . Because of their large size, their only natural predators as adults are American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis). Humans also prey on adult alligator gars.
- American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis)
- humans (Homo sapiens)
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 21 - 80
Comments: The number of extant, distinct occurrences is unknown but probably is at least a few dozen. Lee et al. (1980) mapped approximately 90 locality records in the United States, but existing evidence indicates that most of those in the northern part of the range are not represented by extant populations (see trend comments). Robison and Buchanan (1988) mapped 17 sites in Arkansas for the period 1960-1987. Mettee et al. (1996) and Boschung and Mayden (2004) mapped 12 sites in Alabama. Pflieger (1997) mapped five locations in Missouri, but none were more recent than 1965. Smith (1979) discussed records from a few locations in Illinois, but populations evidently no longer exist in those areas. Etnier and Starnes (1993) mapped four sites in Tennessee but noted that recent confirmed records are lacking. Ross (2001) mapped 14 sites in Mississippi, but only 3 were relatively recent. Gilbert (1992) mapped 10 locations in Florida, but the number of extant populations was not indicated.
10,000 to >1,000,000 individuals
Comments: Total population size is unknown but presumably exceeds 10,000. This gar is uncommon to rare throughout most of the range, except locally in swamps and bayous of the south-central United States (Page and Burr 2011). However, Hoese and Moore (1998) stated that this gar is common in brackish water, frequently seen in the Gulf of Mexico, and common as a market fish in Louisiana. It is numerous enough to support a fishery in a reservoir in Tamaulipas, Mexico (Garcia de Leon et al. 2001).
Life History and Behavior
Not much information is known about communication in alligator gars. Their lateral line system is used to detect motion in the water. They are also likely to use chemical cues and vision to some extent.
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical
Young alligator gars develop from eggs and then float to the water's surface, resembling sticks (Shultz, 2004). They have a disc on the bottom of their snouth that allows them to attach to rocks and other objects until their yolk is absorbed (Goddard, 2005). Shortly afterwards, the young begin searching for food.
Females generally live longer than males and are larger, they may live from 26 to 50 years in the wild (Etnier and Starnes, 1993).
Status: wild: 50 (high) years.
Status: wild: 26 years.
Mating behaviors in this species are not known.
Female alligator gars lay eggs that are dark green or red and stick to rocks and vegetation. The eggs are poisonous if eaten. Alligator gar may take many years to reach sexual maturity, although little is known about reproduction in this species.
Breeding interval: Alligator gar probably breed once yearly.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs from May to July.
Range number of offspring: 138,000 (high) .
Average number of offspring: 77,000.
Range gestation period: 6 to 8 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 11 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 6 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (External ); oviparous
Alligator gars are oviparous. Once the eggs are laid, the young are left to survive on their own (Shultz, 2004).
Parental Investment: no parental involvement; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female)
- Goddard, N. 2005. "Alligator Gar" (On-line). Ichthyology at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Accessed December 03, 2005 at http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/Gallery/Descript/AlligatorGar/AlligatorGar.html.
- Schultz, K. 2004. Ken Shultz’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fish. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Spawning occurs April to June in Louisiana (Suttkus 1963), possibly January to September in Oklahoma-Texas (Echelle and Riggs 1972). Seasonal variation in ovarian weight indicated peak spawning in July-August in northeastern Mexico (Garcia de Leon et al. 2001). In Alabama, females mature at age 11 and live to age 50; males mature at age 6 and live to age 26 (Irwin, cited by Boschung and Mayden 2004).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Atractosteus spatula
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Atractosteus spatula
Public Records: 8
Specimens with Barcodes: 11
Species With Barcodes: 1
Alligator gar are not currently listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern. There are some concerns about overfishing and indications that populations have declined in areas where their preferred habitat, bottomland swamps, has been destroyed through channelization and and the building of levees.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N3 - Vulnerable
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G3 - Vulnerable
Reasons: Large range mainly in rivers and river-mouth estuaries in the central and southeastern United States and eastern Mexico; uncommon to rare in most of range, abundant enough to support fisheries in some areas; extirpated or disappearing in northern part of range, declining in the south; decline may be related to channelization, impoundments, frequent barge traffic, and commercial fishing.
Other Considerations: Of the 13 states in the U.S. range, ranked SX or SH in three, S1 or S2 in six, S3 in three, and S4 in one (Texas). The S4 rank in Texas may not reflect a recent evaluation of status. Two states with ranks of S3 (Tennessee and Florida) actually have very few recent occurrence records. Scarcity of this species in museum collections is in part related to the large size of most specimens that are captured (Gilbert 1992).
Global Short Term Trend: Decline of 10-50%
Comments: Trend over the past three generations is unknown but likely exceeds 10 percent and may exceed 30 percent. One generation is here estimated at 20 years.
Global Long Term Trend: Decline of 30-70%
Comments: Area of occupancy and abundance have declined over the long term, particularly in the northern part of the range. The degree of decline is uncertain but likely exceeds 30 percent. This gar was historically rare in Illinois (Smith 1979), with no confirmed recent records. It was known historically from the Ohio River in Ohio (Trautman 1981), with no confirmed recent records. In Missouri, Pflieger (1997) described evidence that numerous specimens had been collected in the Missouri section of the Mississippi River, but he knew of no records of this species in Missouri more recent than 1965. A drastic decline evidently has occurred in Tennessee, where the species may be extirpated (Etnier and Starnes 1993). Commercial fishermen report occasional captures, but the identity of these fishes is questionable (Etnier and Starnes 1993). In Oklahoma, "generally there has been a consistent decline in numbers" (Miller and Robison 2004). Robison and Buchanan (1988) reported that the population in Arkansas has declined drastically during the last 40 years and that recent confirmed records are few (typically large ones, perhaps indicating a decline in reproduction or recruitment). Formerly there was a significant commercial and sport fishery, but now the species is rarely captured. Historically of statewide distribution in Louisiana (Douglas 1974) but now declining in abundance (Bobby Reed, pers. comm., 1999). Long-term trend in Mississippi is unknown (Ross 2001); all but 3 of the 14 locations mapped in Mississippi by Ross were pre-1983. In Alabama, the species has declined in abundance (Boschung and Mayden 2004); and Mettee et al. (1996) noted that the species has become rare in inland sites in recent years. Small individuals (18-30 inches TL) were found (date not specified, but presumably recently) in brackish water in the Mobile Delta, indicating the occurrence of at least some recruitment. In Florida, the species is widely distributed in the panhandle, but the trend is unknown (Gilbert 1992). Populations may be declining in some Gulf Coastal areas where this gar remained common until recent years (Etnier and Starnes 1993).
Degree of Threat: B : Moderately threatened throughout its range, communities provide natural resources that when exploited alter the composition and structure of the community over the long-term, but are apparently recoverable
Comments: Local declines have been attributed to overfishing, habitat degradation from river channelization and impoundments, loss of spawning habitat and loss of passages between main river channels and floodplains, and frequent barge traffic (Gilbert 1992, Herkert 1992, Etnier and Starnes 1993, Pflieger 1997, Irwin et al. 2001, Boschung and Mayden 2004, Miller and Robison 2004).
Global Protection: None. No occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Given the typical habitat of this fish, it is doubtful whether any occurrences are effectively protected.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Because these fish are predators, they consume gamefish, (Shultz, 2004). In turn, they cause a problem for humans in terms of sport fishing and consumption. There are several undocumented reports of injuries to humans. Their eggs are poinsonous if consumed (Goddard, 2005).
Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings, poisonous )
Alligator gars have been fished commercially (Knopf, 2002). In Lousiana, they are fished for food, acting as a substitute for lobster (Etnier and Starnes, 1993). Like many other fish, they are also collected for aquaria.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; food
Comments: Supports a gillnet fishery in a reservoir in Tamualipas, Mexico (Garcia de Leon et al. 2001).
Alligator gar, Atractosteus spatula, are ray-finned euryhaline fishes related to bowfin in the infraclass Holostei (ho'-las-te-i). The fossil record traces the existence of alligator gars back to the Early Cretaceous over a hundred million years ago. They are the largest 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 characters of their earliest ancestors, such as a spiral valve intestine which is also common to the digestive system of sharks, and they can breathe both air and water. Their common name was derived from their resemblance to American alligators, particularly their broad snout and long sharp teeth. Anecdotal scientific reports suggest that alligator gars 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 girth. Their bodies are torpedo shaped, usually brown or olive fading to a lighter gray or yellow ventral surface. They do not have scales like other fishes, rather they are armored for protection against predation with hard, enamel-like, jagged diamond-shaped ganoid scales that are nearly impenetrable. Unlike other gar species, mature alligator gars have a dual row of large sharp teeth in the upper jaw which they use for impaling and holding prey. They are stalking, ambush predators that are primarily piscivores, but will also ambush and eat water fowl and small mammals that may be floating on the surface.
Alligator gars have been extirpated from much of their historic range through 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 gars were considered "trash fish", or a "nuisance species" that were detrimental to sport fisheries, and therefore targeted for elimination by state and federal authorities in the United States, but the last ten years has seen a greater emphasis placed on the importance of alligator gars to the ecosystems they inhabit. As a result, they were afforded protection by restricted licensing. They are also protected under the Lacey Act which makes it illegal to transport 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 public. Alligator gars 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.
Anatomy and physiology
Alligator gars are the largest species of gar, and among the largest freshwater fishes found in North America. Mature alligator gars 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 Williams of 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. Williams donated it to the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson where it will remain on display.
All gars have torpedo-shaped bodies, but some distinguishing characteristics of adult alligator gars 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 gars have gills, but unlike other fishes 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 gars are not like the scales of other fishes; their bodies are protected by overlapping, enamel-like ganoid scales that are diamond-shaped with jagged edges and composed of a hard inner layer of bone and an outer layer of ganoin that is 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 1976 to 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 Cretaceous to Oligocene periods, in Africa and India from the Cretaceous, and in North America from the Cretaceous to 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 gars back to the Early Cretaceous over a hundred million years ago. Despite being a highly evolved species, alligator gars 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 gars 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 gars to be opportunistic piscivores, and even scavengers depending on the availability of their preferred food source. They occasionally ingest sport fishes, 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 gars 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 gars are bright red and poisonous to humans if ingested.
Alligator gars use 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, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, and Georgia. Reports suggest alligator gars 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 gars 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.
Outside natural range
A few notable sightings of alligator gars have been reported outside North America. In November 2008, an alligator gar measuring 5.2 to 6.4 ft (1.6 to 2.0 m) was caught in the north of Esenguly, Turkmenistan by two officials of Turkmenistan Fishery Protection.
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 gars, the largest measuring 4.9 ft (1.5 m), were found in ponds in public parks in Hong Kong. Nearby residents reported the alligator gars 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 gars 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 gars 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 gars to precipitate unreasonable fear in those unfamiliar with the species. Sensationalized reports have contributed to the misconception of predatory attacks by alligator gars on humans even though none of the reports have been confirmed.
On January 21, 2011, an alligator gar measuring 4 feet 11 inches (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.
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 gars 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 gars thrashing around on the decks of boats. Fishermen participated in the slaughter of thousands of alligator gars believing they were providing a great service. In 1995, KUHT channel 8, a member PBS television station located on the campus of the University of Houston in Texas, distributed and broadcast the first video documentary ever produced on alligator gar. The documentary, "Alligator Gar:Predator or Prey?", debuted nationally in prime time during the July Sweeps, and according to the Nielsen rating report provided to KUHT, was the number one rated program of the evening. The documentary focused on the physiology and life cycle of alligator gars, addressed the destruction of habitat, the unregulated culling and over harvesting of alligator gars from various lakes in Texas and Louisiana, and expressed concerns for the future of the species at a time when it was 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.
The long time public perception of alligator gars 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 gars. Texas has one of the best remaining fisheries for alligator gars, 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 gars 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 pounds (130 kg) alligator gar from the Trinity River. The all-tackle record was a 302 pounds (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 feet 6 inches (2.90 m) on rod and line from the Trinity River.
Commercialization and aquaculture
Declining populations of alligator gars throughout their historic range has resulted in the need to monitor wild populations and regulate commercial harvests. Alligator gars 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 novelty items.
Atractosteus gars, including alligator gars, 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.
Despite the large size alligator gars can attain, they are kept as aquarium fish, though many fish labeled as "alligator gar" in the aquarium trade are actually smaller species. Alligator gars 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 gars as pets, but they will occasionally show up in fish stores. Alligator gars are highly prized and sought after for private aquaria, particularly in Japan. According to some reports, large alligator gars 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 gars 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.
- Tony Brady (August 2013). "Fleur De Lis Fisheries". US Fish & Wildlife Service. p. 2.
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Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Formerly included in the genus Lepisosteus. Placed by Wiley (1976) in genus Atractosteus, along with L. tristoechus, L. tropicus, and a number of fossil species. Nelson (1984) regarded Atractosteus as a subgenus of Lepisosteus. The 1991 AFS checklist (Robins et al. 1991) also included this species in the genus Lepisosteus. Page and Burr (1991), Etnier and Starnes (1993), and Nelson (1994) followed Wiley's use of the generic name Atractosteus.
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