The Ancient Armored Gar

Fish from the gar family (Lepisosteidae) swam in fresh and brackish waters when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  During the Cretaceous Era gar had a worldwide distribution, but today they’re restricted to the Americas.  They are a top predator among fish–their armor makes them invulnerable to attack from other bony fish, though alligators, bull sharks, and man can overcome this defense.  They have long sharp teeth that helps them subdue minnows, bream, crustaceans, baby alligators, and even birds.  Their eggs are highly toxic, so do not eat them, thinking they’re an alternative to caviar.  These tough fish can breathe through their air bladder as well as their gills, allowing them to survive droughts when oxygen in water  falls to low levels that kill other fish.  Gar are commonly found in brackish water as well and can tolerate higher levels of salinity than other freshwater fish.

On the North American continent, there are 4 species of gar.  All but the alligator gar live in Georgia.

Long-nosed gar (Lepisosteus osseus)

Spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus)

Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus)  According to the guide, this was the species I was seeing in Wakulla Springs, Florida.  The word gar is archaic for spear.  The fish is shaped like a spear, hence the name.

Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) They formerly reached lengths of up to 10 feet long and weights of 350 pounds.  Note the skull.  It’s really shaped like an alligator’s head.

Gar have more robust scales and bones than most other species of fish and are therefore recognized more easily in fossil deposits.  Today, alligator gar distribution is limited to the Mississippi River drainage.  They occur just west of Georgia in Alabama Rivers that eventually flow into the mighty Mississippi, and they are completely absent from the peninsula of Florida.  But alligator gar fossils have been found in several peninsular Florida fossils sites, indicating the species inhabited that region until at least the late Pleistocene.  At the Leisey Shellpit fossil site (the subject of next week’s blog entry) they are the most abundant species in a section labeled IA which is thought to represent a paleo-brackish habitat.  Pond sliders (Chrysemys scripta) and alligator snapping turtles (Macroclemys temmincki) are also absent from peninsular Florida today but did inhabit the region during the Pleistocene.  Rising sea levels during the Sangamonian Interglacial (~132,000 BP-~118,000 BP) eliminated freshwater habitat in peninsular Florida where alligator gars, pond sliders, and alligator snapping turtles lived, and all 3 species have failed to recolonize habitat that seems suitable for them today.

Most fishermen consider gar a trash fish, but along with eels they were a favorite among Native Americans who roasted them whole in fire.  The fire burned the tough scales off the succulent white meat.  It is difficult to cut through the armor of a gar.  Cajuns still eat gar and do wonderful things with it.  They make a spicy smoked tasso ham from gar.  More commonly, they make fish meatballs called boulettes that they smother in gravy and serve with rice.  The following 2 videos show how they butcher, clean, and cook gar.  Those gar fish boulettes look delicious.

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