By Carmelo “Mel” Russo
The gar is an infrequently encountered scary looking fish found commonly in many of the Finger Lakes. Originally colonizing the Great Lakes Basin approximately 10,000 years ago via ancient connections with the Mississippi River, the species represents a very primitive group of fishes covered with a thick, tough armor of ganoid (rhomboid) scales. Its scientific name, Lepisosteus osseus, is Latin for spotted, hard, bony skin. It is thought that PaleoAmericans used the hard skin as a shield in battle. (Perhaps the odor, alone, repelled their attackers!)
The long, narrow bill of the gar is well endowed with a multitude of sharp, conical teeth which are used to initially grasp and pierce its prey of mostly smaller fish, which, when limp, are then turned head first to be swallowed. The beak is also equipped with electroreceptors to aid in locating its edible subjects, which it attacks with a lightning-swift motion. Since the eyes of the beast are located laterally, this extra sensory ability of the beak is a very useful, well adapted sense, especially in detecting any live, tasty meals anterior to the fish. The feeding ambush is quite a big surprise to the carefree victim, thinking that it was swimming by a seemingly inert, big stick.
Accordingly, the Lepisostidae can be easily mistaken for a floating small log or stick, if young. This unwittingly but masterful misconception occurs because gars commonly bask in the sun enjoying the warmth at the surface of the shallows in summer, while awaiting feeding opportunities in a perfect state of motionlessness. During this time, the head, beak and nostrils of the fish are exposed directly to the air which, uniquely, it can breathe through to its air bladder specifically for respiration, quite unlike any other fish. This process is performed while sunning at the surface, in tepid waters that are low in dissolved oxygen. The internal anatomy of the gar is unusually well adapted to air breathing in that the swim bladder, normally a thin balloon-like sack used by most fish for buoyancy, is specially equipped with a vascular system. This allows diffusion of oxygen straight from the air into the blood, thereby supplementing the gills. This is thought to be an embryological, rudimentary origin of the lungs that are used by higher vertebrates for respiration.
Although in the Finger Lakes gars may obtain lengths of up to five feet and over 25 pounds, they are seldom caught by anglers because of their narrow, tough beak. They are harmless to humans, however, unless you eat their green eggs (with no relation to “Green Eggs and Ham”of Dr. Seuss) which are poisonous. Any organism that chooses to eat the roe is promptly removed from the gene pool and further allows this exceedingly and magnificently well adapted, ancient fish to persist further into modern times as yet another unappreciated anomaly of the Finger Lakes. To view one of these primordial piscavores you should buy some lake property or some real estate near a public park from Senecayuga Properties: 315-568-9404
Sources: Hubbs and Lagler: Fishes of the Great lakes Region, 2004
Peterson: Field Guide to North American Fishes, 1991
© 2016 Mel Russo All rights Reserved.