Gars are primitive fishes, and are related to the bowfin in the superorder Holestei (ho'-las-te-i). Alligator gars were originally named Lepisosteus spatula, but the name was later changed to Atractosteus spatula in 1976 by Wiley in recognition of two distinct genera of gars. Spatula means "any tool with a broad, flat blade." Atractosteus means "spindle" and osteus means "bony".
There are seven living species of gar which are restricted to North and Central America, ranging from southern Canada and continuing southward to Cuba and Central America. Four of the most common species found in the United States are the longnose gar, the shortnose gar, the spotted gar, and the alligator gar.
The alligator gar is progressively declining throughout its range because of overfishing, dams, loss of habitat, and other anthropogenic impacts. Reports of sightings are rare in the Northern part of its range.
Alligator gar are freshwater inhabitants, and can tolerate high salinities. They are commonly found in the warm, sluggish backwaters of lowland rivers and lakes, in swamps, reservoirs, brackish waters, bayous and bays. They are known to enter coastal bays, and have even been seen in the Gulf of Mexico.
Alligator gars are primarily piscivores, meaning they eat other fish. They are seemingly sluggish but are rather voracious predators when in ambush of their prey. Their method of attack is to lay still in the water, often appearing as harmless as a floating log, waiting patiently for an unsuspecting fish to swim by. At just the right moment, they will lunge forward with a sweeping motion to capture their prey. It's usually an open and shut case. Alligator gar are also night predators, and will prey on small mammals, turtles, waterfowl and other birds that may be floating on the surface.
Alligator gar were targeted by commercial fisheries because of the high yield of white meat filets. However, catching and cleaning alligator gar is a difficult process because of their sharp teeth and the potential for injury during landing. Cleaning is also a major task because of their tough hides and ganoid scales. The meat also has to be iced down and transported to market immediately. Alligator gar fillets sell in select grocery stores and can easily bring $3.00/lb.
Fried gar balls are a favorite in the south, as are grilled and boiled fillets.
Little is known about the breeding and spawning habits of alligator gar. Research indicates spawning occurs in the spring, typically from April through June in the southern U.S. Preferred spawning habitat appears to be flooded backwaters, although there are validated reports of alligator gars spawning in vegetated backwater areas of large lakes.
Alligator gars, like other large ancestral species that are long lived and late maturing, are thought to congregate in large numbers with one large female being accompanied by several smaller males. The female releases her eggs, and the males fertilize them in a cloud of milt. The eggs have a sticky outer layer, so as they fall to the bottom, they will either attach to vegetation, or bottom substrate.
The number of eggs produced by a female is variable. One formula is 4.1 eggs per gram of body weight, or an average of 150,000 eggs per spawn. Of special note - alligator gar eggs are bright red, and highly toxic if eaten.
Newly hatched alligator gar are still attached to their yolk sak for the first few days of life. They have a sticky pad under their jaw which allows them to attach to vegetation and other objects that are secured to the bottom. It protects them from being swept away by currents, and enables them to hide from predators.
David Schleser, Aquatic Biologist: "To me, Gars are among the most interesting of fish. I particularly like primitive fish. I think that we should mention right here, that when people hear an animal referred to as a primitive animal they tend to think that they haven't been perfected -- it hasn't advanced to a modern state, and this is just the opposite in the way they should look at it. If something that evolved millions and millions of years ago, and still alive, obviously evolved into a state of perfection if it still survives to this day. So primitive just means that it's been around a long time and evolved a long time ago, not that the animal isn't fully developed, so to speak." From the documentary, Alligator Gar: Predator Or Prey" ©2011 Earthwave Society - all rights reserved.
Alligator gar are a prized sportfish for bowhunters, and anglers.
Available on DVD:
Alligator Gar: Predator Or Prey?