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Freshwater lake sturgeon have long, scaleless bodies with ridges along their spines.

Lake Sturgeon

Lake sturgeons are the biggest fish in the Great Lakes, yet among the hardest to see. Even at 4 or more feet long—the record is 8 feet and 310 pounds—they hug the lake bottom at depths of 20 feet, searching for food. And while individuals can pass the century mark, the species has been around since the days of the dinosaurs.

A lake sturgeon on the habitat floor at Shedd Aquarium.

As prehistoric as they look

Lake sturgeons appeared in the fossil record 136 million years ago. They haven’t changed much since then. A heavy, torpedo-shaped body is partially covered with bony plates instead of scales, while the skeleton is cartilage instead of bone. Four long barbels that sprout from a blunt snout help these bottom-feeding omnivores sweep for insects, crustaceans, small clams, snails and anything else they can suck into a retractable tubular mouth. Electroreceptors on the head, called ampullae of Lorenzini, sense weak electric fields from prey or potential mates.

Long-lived, yet endangered

The oldest documented lake sturgeon was 154 years old, and it was most likely a female. More typical age ranges are 50 years for males and 75 for females. Such long-lived species are slow to mature. Males reach breeding age at 8 to 12, while females are between 14 and 33 before they start laying eggs. Overfishing has been a double whammy for sturgeon populations: Too many have been taken, and many never had the chance to reproduce. Other threats include dams that block spawning migrations. Lake sturgeon are now protected as endangered species in Illinois and Indiana.

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