Saturday, December 11, 2010

Longnose Gar

Longnose Gar, Lepisosteus osseus. Photo by Gary Meszaros

Columbus Dispatch
Odd prehistoric fish is lean and lethal
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Jim McCormac

Let’s become a blackstripe topminnow, for a moment. Swimming just under the surface of a stream, as topminnows do, we’re having a good time picking off insects that have fallen into the drink.

We are maneuvering around a large floating stick when SNAP! With blinding speed, the “stick” animates into a toothy terror, and the business end opens into a gaping maw filled with tiny needles — the last sight we’ll see in this watery world.

And another minnow meets its demise, courtesy of one of Ohio’s oldest beasts: the longnose gar ( Lepisosteus osseus).

In our rivers, only lampreys, sturgeon and paddlefish are more primitive than gars, which have been plying Earth’s waters for at least 65 million years. Gars certainly look the part of a creature that dates to the Cretaceous Period. Long and cylindrical, gars are heavily plated with armorlike scales, like piscine Sherman tanks. They have an incredibly elongated “beak” filled with sharp teeth, the better to seize and lacerate lesser fishes.

Gars even have an odd bladder that allows them to breathe fresh air, which is why observers occasionally notice them sticking their snout from the water. Their gills are functional, but the ability to breathe air is useful in poorly oxygenated waters.

At one time, gars were far more plentiful in Ohio’s streams. Two species, the spotted and shortnose gars, are listed as endangered and are confined to limited areas of Lake Erie and the lower Scioto River, respectively.

The monstrous alligator gar once lived in the Ohio River and the lower portions of its major tributaries. Alligator gars are the stuff of legend, with exceptional individuals approaching 10 feet long and weighing more than 300 pounds. The last Ohio specimen was taken in 1946.

Today, only the longnose gar is common in the Buckeye State. These bizarre fish aren’t exactly Lilliputian: A big one can tape out at 4½ feet long and tip the scales at 14 pounds. More common are gar of 2 to 3 feet and perhaps 7 pounds.

I once saw about 50 longnose gars loafing in the slack water of a pool in a southern Ohio stream. They looked just like a bunch of sticks drifting with the current. And that’s their hunting strategy: Look very unfishlike and dupe prey into a sense of security. Then, when something tasty — like our aforementioned blackstripe topminnow — floats into range, they lash out and snap it up.

Longnose gars aren’t plentiful in central Ohio, but they do occur in Big Walnut Creek below Hoover Reservoir. They can also be found in the Scioto River south of Columbus.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at jim.mccormac.blogspot. com.


Cape May Wren said...

My love for gars is due solely to the (very old--20 years? 30? no one really could say) short-nosed we had in a tank in the biology lab at college. Very, very cool fish.

Jim McCormac said...

Yes, they make quite the interesting pets. We had one in an aquarium for a few years at work, and it was always interesting at feeding time, when we'd toss in the minnows.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I've had gar at the top end of Hover off the boardwalk, too.

Cape May Wren said...

Ah, the sparkle of goldfish scales in the water... *lol*

Anonymous said...

In summer when the outflows are minimal, a good spot to find Longnose Gar is in the tailwater of Caesar Creek Dam. They like to hang in the slow current next to a gravel bar just downstream. Paddlefish also make it from the Ohio up the Little Miami and the 3 miles or so of Caesar Creek below the Dam, and have been snagged accidentally a few times. The Visitor Center has one such unlucky specimen on display.

Cape May Wren said...

Paddlefish! Would love to see any of these in their natural habitat... I may live on the coast and find salt marshes fascinating, but there's nothing quite like a freshwater stream/river. *sigh*

Vincent Lucas said...

Come see our Florida Gar. Also have Alligator Gar (far less common) and I don't know what other gars, if any. Not really a fish man although so many folks are down here. . . .

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the Caesar Creek tip, Brian. And I'd love to see a Paddlefish - that would be a life fish!