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(For the week of June 7, 2010)
Research Project Studies Alligator Gar
by James L. Cummins

A fish longer than 7 feet, heavier than 200 pounds and able to survive out of water for 2 hours sounds like a fictional animal. However, this is not a fictional animal, it is the alligator gar and researchers at Mississippi State University (MSU) are working to protect it.

The population of the alligator gar is in decline, primarily due to loss of spawning habitat and over-fishing by anglers. Scientists and graduate students in MSU's College of Forest Resources are hoping to reverse this trend.

“The alligator gar was once thought to eat only game fish, so anglers set out to remove them from slow-moving rivers and reservoirs,” said Daniel Schwarz, a graduate student in MSU's Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture. “Now we know that alligator gars are opportunistic feeders and will eat anything from fish to birds.”

This species of gar is one of the largest freshwater fish in North America. It gets its name from the two rows of sharp upper teeth in its long snout. This makes the gar look like an alligator. Once common from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico, the monstrous fish is now concentrated only in the Southeastern United States.

While scientists understand the feeding habits of these fish, they know little about their habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently tagging alligator gar with acoustic transmitters to determine their preferred habitat.

While the government agency is tracking the gar in its natural habitat, Schwarz will work with the fish at the university's South Farm aquatic facility. He will use an experimental system of large, drainable tanks that simulate real-life conditions but easily allow manipulation. He is trying to determine the saltwater needs of this elusive, aquatic vertebrate.

“I will expose alligator gar at two different ages to different levels of salinity to determine the effects on their growth,” Schwarz said. “The alligator gars will be kept in each treatment for 30 days.”

“We will take numerous measurements, including their weights at the beginning and end of the 30-day period, food conversion ratio, drinking rate and the concentration of salts in the fish,” Schwarz said.

Studying the fish in a laboratory is somewhat unconventional. Most studies examine the species in its natural habitat of rivers and reservoirs. The knowledge gained from the study will improve management practices for protecting this species of gar.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.