Virginia Living Museum
Patrolling the swamps, marshes and backwaters of Virginia is a fascinating fish. The longnose gar, “Lepisosteus osseus,” has a cigar shaped body covered by heavy-duty diamond-shaped scales and long jaws with needlelike teeth. Gar is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spear” in reference to the pointed snout.
Members of this primitive family of fishes swam in warm shallow waters when giant reptiles roamed the earth. Today there are five species of gar in North America and the longnose gar is the only one found in Virginia. In fact it was the first freshwater fish named in the state back in 1758. This species of gar is found from Canada to Mexico.
Gars have a lung-like swim bladder, which permits air breathing to supplement their gills, allowing them to live in water with low dissolved oxygen. This adaptation enables them to rise to the surface and gulp air to survive.
Gars are carnivorous and feed almost entirely on fish. They are ambush predators that will lie near the surface barely moving and wait for the next meal to swim by. With a quick sideways snap of the head a gar can grab its prey in its powerful jaws.
Females grow faster and live longer than the males. The fairer sex can grow over five feet and live more than 30 years.
The longnose gar spawns in the spring, ascending rivers and lower reaches of streams. They seek out weed beds over a gravel bottom. The female swims over the spawning site and is followed by up to 15 males. With a tilt of her head the males are signaled to move alongside of her. She then vibrates her body a couple of times and releases her eggs and the males fertilize them. A female can produce more than 40,000 eggs per year.
The eggs hatch in about a week and are toxic to all predators including humans. The larvae possess an adhesive organ on the end of their snout that allows them to stay attached to vegetation until they are one inch long. They can grow more than 12 inches their first year.
Large gar scales have been popular as jewelry and pioneer farmers covered their plows with gar hides before there was steel. Many anglers consider the longnose gar a “trash” or “rough” fish since the flesh is not a popular food and the gar have been known to be bait stealers. Some Native Americans prefer gars to other fish and roast them whole in the coals of open fires. When caught by heedless fisherman, gars are often thrown on shore and left to die.
Those on display in the Virginia Living Museum’s swamp habitat receive better treatment. They share their habitat with a variety of fish, turtles and birds in an environment similar to that found in the wild.
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