Gars are a primitive group of euryhaline fishes dating back to the late Jurassic to early Cretaceous Period, about 150 million years ago. Gars are one of the most recognizable fishes because of their slender torpedo-shaped bodies, ganoid scales, and long snouts with numerous teeth. Dorsal and anal fins are set far back on the body, and the caudal fin is rounded, with a condition known as abbreviate-heterocercal. Gars are unusual among fishes in that their vascularized swim bladders can function as lungs; they must surface periodically to take a gulp of air. Arkansas hosts four gar species: the alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula), spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus), longnose gar (L. osseus), and shortnose gar (L. platostomous).
Fossilized gar specimens have been found in Europe, India, South America, and North America, indicating that in ancient times, these fish had a wider geographic distribution than they do today. Gars are considered to be a remnant of a group of teleost fishes that flourished in the Mesozoic, and they are most closely related to the bowfin, Amia calva.
One of the first reports of a gar in North America was in 1609 by the French navigator Samuel de Champlain (1574–1635). Ethnographer, historian, and naturalist Antoine Simon le Page Du Pratz (1695–1775), in his 1758 History of Louisiana, reported “Poisson Arme” (Alligator Gar) from the Red River of Louisiana. During the 1806 Freeman-Custis Red River expedition, garfish (most likely longnose gar) were reported by medical student Peter Custis (1781–1842), along with alligator fish (most assuredly the alligator gar) that were 4.6 m (15 ft.) in length. Prior to these reports, the finding of a Caddo Indian pot (circa AD 1400) representing a gar was excavated from a grave at an Indian mound in Arkansas near Mineral Springs (Howard County). Dimensions of this artifact suggest it could be an alligator gar.
Taxonomically, the seven extant gars occupy two genera (Atractosteus and Lepisosteus) and are placed in the Family Lepisosteidae, Order Lepisosteiformes, Infraclass Holostei, and Class Actinopterygii. The family includes fishes that inhabit fresh, brackish, and occasionally marine waters of eastern North America, Central America, and the Caribbean islands. Of the seven living types of gars, five species inhabit the United States, four of which occur in Arkansas. The three species not occurring in the state include the Cuban gar (Atractosteus tritoeschus), tropical gar (A. tropicus), and Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrinchus).
In general, gars are lie-in-wait apex predators that consume other fishes but have also been found to consume blue crabs, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. They are believed to forage primarily at night but have been seen both day and night lying motionless against floating logs, in debris, or under overhanging trees. Gars traditionally have been seen by anglers as “trash” or “nuisance fish” and were earlier thought to be a menace to other fishes. In fact, in the 1950s, there was a state-sponsored attempt to get rid of gars from Arkansas’s waters. Unfortunately, populations of alligator gars have been extirpated from much of their historic range as a result of habitat destruction, indiscriminate culling, and unrestricted harvests. The ecological role of gars is better understood today, however, and anglers generally view them as important in keeping fish populations in balance. Gars have few predators, but alligators, large fish and birds, and even cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) have been reported to prey on them.
The alligator gar (A. spatula) was described by Bernard Germain de Lacépède (1756–1825) in 1803. It is the largest fish species in the state, occasionally reaching lengths of 2.4 m (8.0 ft.). A gar caught in 1964 in the Arkansas River weighed 97.5 kg (215 lbs.) and set the state angling record. The world-record-setting A. spatula was a massive specimen tangled in the net of a commercial fisherman in 2011 from Lake Chotard, Mississippi, weighing 148 kg (327 lbs.). It was estimated to be about ninety-five years old. This fish is much larger than the all-tackle world record gar, a 127 kg (279 lb.) specimen caught in 1951 in Texas.
Owing to its large size and sharp teeth, this gar is capable of delivering a serious bite and wound to fishermen or swimmers. However, there is no evidence of attacks on humans by alligator gars. Alligator gars have an olive coloration with a white belly and medial fins having circular black spots. This species has a short, broad snout with teeth in the upper jaw in two rows on each side, with the teeth in the inner row being larger than the teeth in the outer row. They have a body covered with ganoid scales and a dorsal and anal fin placed far back on the body. Lateral line scales number 58 to 62.
The alligator gar had a historical range that spread across most large river systems and tributaries from the estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico states north into the Ohio River Valley. Former populations in Illinois are thought to be extirpated, and those in Indiana and Ohio are presumed extirpated. However, known populations currently exist only in the lower Mississippi River Valley from Arkansas, Oklahoma, and eastern Texas to the west; Missouri and Tennessee to the north; Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to the east; and south to portions of Mexico (Tamaulipas and Veracruz), with disjunct occurrences in Nicaragua and northwestern Costa Rica. In Arkansas, alligator gars inhabit the largest rivers in the state such as the Arkansas, Ouachita, Red, and White rivers. This species seems to prefer pools and backwaters of these large rivers as well as the occasional oxbow lakes connected to large rivers in the Delta region. Major prey items include various fishes, but this gar is also known to prey on waterfowl and other birds, small mammals, turtles, and carrion. In brackish water, the alligator gar is known to feed heavily on blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus), in addition to fish such as the hardhead catfish (Ariopsis felis). Due to its extremely large size, an adult alligator gar has few natural predators. Young gars are preyed upon by larger fish, but once they reach a size of about three feet, their only natural predator is the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).
Alligator gar spawning occurs from April to June in Louisiana and May to September along the Red River in Oklahoma and Texas. Females mature at age eleven and live to be about fifty years old, whereas males mature at age six and live to about age twenty-six.
If cleaned properly, alligator gars are said to be good to eat (except their eggs, which are toxic to humans). Alligator gars are considered fantastic sport fish, particularly for bowfishing. The conservation status of A. spatula is uncertain due to limited data; however, historical trends suggest populations have declined substantially since the middle of the twentieth century, warranting further investigation. The alligator gar in Arkansas is considered a Species of Special Concern that needs to be monitored carefully in the future.
Research on alligator gars in Arkansas has been conducted by personnel at the Arkansas Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the University of Central Arkansas and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, examining the status assessment, life history, reproduction, and habitat use of A. spatula in the state.
The spotted gar (L. oculatus) was described by geologist Alexander Winchell (1824–1891) in 1864. It is smaller than the alligator gar and is olive-colored, with the body, top of the head, pectoral, and pelvic fins having dark spots. Its maximum length is about 114 cm (45 in.). The rod-and-reel Arkansas record is a specimen collected in 1995 from Mellwood Old River in Phillips County that weighed 2.9 kg (6 lbs., 12 oz.). This gar has a long body with a broad snout (the snout width at nostrils going into snout length five to seven times). As with other gars, the dorsal and anal fins are set far back on the body, and the body is covered with tough, ganoid scales. Lateral line scales number 53 to 59. Spotted gars are widely distributed and range from central Texas (San Antonio River) east into western Florida (Apalachicola River) and north through the Mississippi River drainage into Illinois, the lower Ohio River, and the Lake Erie and southern Lake Michigan drainages to Ontario, Canada; populations are presumed extirpated in New Mexico. In Arkansas, the spotted gar is a Coastal Plain inhabitant that lives in heavily vegetated, clear waters in most rivers of this region. This gar feeds on fishes, crayfishes, and aquatic insects, as well as crabs in southern waters. Male L. oculatus are sexually mature at two to three years and females by their third or fourth year. Spawning occurs in the late spring and early summer in shallow water. This gar can live up to eighteen years.
Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) described the longnose gar (L. osseus) in 1758. As its name implies, this gar has an extremely long snout (snout width at nostrils going into snout length 11.5 or more times), ganoid scales, and fins typically spotted, although the top of head and snout areas do not have spots. Longnose gars can reach a maximum length of about 2.13 m (7.0 ft.) and maximum weight around 22.7 kg (50 lbs.). The state rod-and-reel angling record is 15.9 kg (35 lbs., 12 oz.) caught in 2005 from Taylor Old River Lake (an oxbow of the Arkansas River). Longnose gars range widely throughout the eastern United States from central Florida and north into southern Quebec; it is especially common in the Mississippi River drainage and in the Carolinas and may be found as far south and west as the Rio Grande drainage in northern Mexico, southern Texas, and New Mexico. It enters brackish water occasionally in the Mississippi Sound, Mobile Bay, and Perdido Bay. This gar is known statewide in Arkansas and occurs in a wide variety of habitats, including rivers, bayous, oxbow lakes, and swamps in the Coastal Plain region; in the Interior Highlands region, it is seen in streams, rivers, and reservoirs. Another stealthy predator, it eats other fishes, crayfishes, and aquatic insects. Males are sexually mature by age three or four and females by age six. In Arkansas, longnose gars spawn in May and June.
The smallest gar species in Arkansas is the shortnose gar (L. platostomus), described by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque (1783–1840) in 1820. It reaches lengths of 0.6 m (2 ft.) or less and a body weight of 2.3 kg (5 lbs.) or less. The Arkansas angling record is 4.3 kg (9 lbs., 6 oz.) caught in Lake Dardanelle in 2012. This gar possesses a short, broad snout (snout width at nostrils going into snout length 4.6 to 7.1 times). Typically, its body does not have any spots, although the fins may have a few. Lateral line scales are 60 to 64. The shortnose gar is found in the low gradient portion of the Mississippi River drainage from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi as far north as Montana (where it is critically imperiled) in the west, and the Ohio River, Lake Michigan, and Wisconsin in the east; former populations in Alabama and Pennsylvania are presumed extirpated. In Arkansas, L. platostomus is a common inhabitant of pools and quiet backwaters of Coastal Plain rivers such as the Arkansas, Mississippi, Ouachita, St. Francis, and White. Similar to other gars, it primarily eats fishes but may consume crayfish and emerging insects; they also have comparable predators to other gars. Shortnose gars are sexually mature by age three, and spawning takes place from April to June.
North American gars host a suite of at least forty-one taxa of parasites (some recently described as new species), ranging from various trematodes to crustaceans. However, little has been published on the parasites specific to Arkansas gars.
For additional information:
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Henry W. Robison
Chris T. McAllister
Eastern Oklahoma State College
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