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Creature Feature: Hidden Value of the Longnose Gar

The longnose gar is a curious-looking species, with a long skinny body complementing the slender snout that gives them their name. While this may seem goofy at first glance, these are two of many features that support their fierce predatory nature.

Longnose gar are built to be the most effective predators. Their thin body allows them to move quickly through the water to ambush their prey. When a gar spots its prey, it curves and tenses its body into an S-shape, set like a spring for a lightning-fast, explosive strike. Their snout is lined with sharp and pointy teeth for easy catching and tearing. And their hard, diamond-shaped scales protect them through it all.

An image of a longnose gar fish next to a bright green underwater plant at Shedd.

Longnose gar are considered apex predators at the top of the food chain, making them essential to the good health of their ecosystems by controlling and preventing overpopulation. This predatory role is one they've been perfecting for 100 million years as a living fossil, meaning the species existed during the time of the dinosaurs and has changed very little since. This history provides researchers an insightful glimpse into evolutionary trends. For example, gars evolved the ability to breathe air with their swim bladder, which is lifesaving in areas with low levels of oxygen in the water. This unique trait is a great demonstration of how species change over time to better adapt to their environment.

Gars are no small fish, reaching lengths of up to nearly 7 feet and over 50 pounds. Their size reflects their long maturation time of about three to six years, after which they migrate from larger rivers and lakes to smaller, shallower and faster moving streams for their April to August spawning season. Here, a female gar can lay up to 30,000 eggs with up to 15 mates. Most won't live past the embryo stage, but within three to nine days, the survivors hatch.

Thankfully, the longnose gar is common and has a stable population, being listed as least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to no known widespread population threats. That’s not to say that the species is without risks — it’s gone extinct from a few isolated areas, and there's the possibility of local overfishing.

A close-up image of the skinny snout of a longnose gar fish at Shedd.
A spotted longnose gar fish next to some rocks and underwater grass at Shedd.

Despite the importance of longnose gar for its freshwater ecosystem, this fish unfortunately has a negative public image that comes from its predatory nature, specifically it hunting and eating more "desirable" sportfish.

Like all species, the longnose gar deserves to be protected. It’s important to educate others on how they provide ecosystem regulation, are living fossils and contribute to a deeper scientific understanding our freshwater resources.

Show your support with a visit to see longnose gar in the At Home on the Great Lakes gallery. You can share photos and videos to increase familiarity and appreciation for the speices, or tell people about their unique features to create intrigue and fascination. Together, we can truly appreciate this species and work to help people better understand the longnose gar and why it’s important to protect even the fiercest of fish.

Kevin Thul, Brendan Covell and Stephanie Lingenfelter, Fall 2022 ACCA Freshwater Ecology Students