Field of Science


Apart from the mostly terrestrial radiation of the tetrapods, the vast majority of today's bony-skeletoned fishes belong to the clade of the teleosts. Way back in the Triassic, the ancestors of this clade went through a process of modification of the jaw skeleton to make it more mobile and adroit in catching small prey, and this together with a tendency towards the lightening of the skeleton and the body's covering of bony scales marked the beginnings of what is now well over 25,000 species. But while they may pale in comparison to this phylogenetic behemoth, there are still non-teleost (and non-tetrapod) bony fishes out there if you look in the right places.

Alligator gar Atractosteus spatula, copyright Stan Shebs.

Most studies on fish phylogeny in the last decade or so have agreed that the living sister group of the teleosts is the Holostei, a clade including only eight living species. One of these is the bowfin Amia calva, an elongate, cylindrical-bodied fish with a long dorsal fin running most of the length of its back. The other seven sepecies belong to the gar genera Lepisosteus and Atractosteus, forming the family Lepisosteidae*. Gars are also elongate like the bowfin, albeit without the long dorsal fin, and have elongate, flattened jaws (tending to be narrower in Lepisosteus than Atractosteus). The tail fin in both bowfins and gars is rounded, not forked. Living holosteans are restricted to North America (including Central America and the Caribbean)** but fossils show them to have been more widespread in the past. They are mostly found in fresh water; some species may tolerate brackish or even salt water but they do not stay there permanently. Bowfins and gars are able to breathe air directly as well as through their gills (indeed, gars are reported to drown if prevented from coming to the surface for several hours) and can therefore survive in more stagnant waters than many other fish. The bowfin averages about half a metre in length; the smaller gar species are also in this range. The largest species, the alligator gar Atractosteus spatula, reaches at least close to three metres. Larger sizes (up to six metres or more!) have been reported for this species but appear likely to be errors or exaggerations; as noted by one authority, "All fishes shrink under the tape measure" (Grande 2010).

*The incorrect alternative spellings Lepidosteus and Lepidosteidae (as well as Lepidosteiformes) have often appeared in the past.

**References to a supposed Chinese gar have long persisted in the literature, based on a description of a "Lepidosteus sinensis" from 1873. This description was based on a drawing rather than an actual specimen, and it is now thought that the fish depicted was probably a belonid (an unrelated long-jawed teleost) rather than a gar.

Bowfin Amia calva sharing a tank with largemouth basses, copyright Bemep.

Modern holosteans are ambush predators, feeding on other fish or aquatic invertebrates. In general, larger species tend to prefer a diet of fish whereas smaller species focus on invertebrates, but all appear to be happy to take whatever they may, whether alive or dead. The alligator gar has been claimed to attack humans but no such attacks seem to have been authenticated; Grande (2010) stated that "swimmers probably have very little to fear from them". As well as their sheer size, this accusation may have been fueled by the alligator gar's apparent tendency in some areas to hang around wharves scavenging garbage. Neither bowfins nor gars are of high importance as food fish for humans though their size and strength gain them some attraction as sport fish*. An industry for the production and marketing of bowfin roe has arisen in recent years following the decline in availability of caviar from Russian sturgeon species; no such market exists for gar eggs, which are toxic to humans. Historically, the thick armour of scales covering the skin of gars was used by Caribbean Indians for making breastplates while individual scales could be used for arrowheads.

*Grande (2010) quotes Eberle (1990) to the effect that gars have "a poor reputation among anglers, who believe [they] would have been better suited as land dwellers had they been able to stand their own reflections in the water".

Shortnose gar Lepisosteus platostomus, copyright Rufus46.

Reproductive habits are best known in the bowfin and the longnose gar Lepisosteus osseus. Male bowfins construct a nest in mats of fibrous vegetation, into which they attempt to induce passing females to spawn. Guarding of the eggs after spawning is the duty of the male alone; the female moves on, perhaps to spawn in another male's nest (the male himself may also court more females). The eggs are adhesive and take about a week and a half to hatch. Following hatching, the fry attach themselves to nearby vegetation by an adhesive organ at the end of their snout and spend some time being nourished by the remains of their yolk sac beofre beginning to forage. The male will continue to guard his fry until they reach about a month of age. Reproduction in longnose gars is similar in the production of adhesive eggs and the early sessile, snout-attached period of the life cycle, but differs in that there is no nest construction or parental care. There is a record of gar eggs being deposited in the nest of a smallmouth bass and the fry being subsequently raised cuckoo-wise by the nest's owner, but it is unclear whether this reflects any deliberate action by the parental gars or simply a fortuitous accident. Gars take up to six years to reach maturity, with males maturing a couple of years earlier than females.

Semionotus bergeri, copyright Ghedoghedo.

The fossil record of holosteans extends back to their divergence from the teleosts in the early to mid-Triassic, with the bowfin and gar lineages apparently diverging from each other not long afterwards. As noted above, both lineages include a diversity of extinct members that somewhat belies their current paucity, such as Macrosemiidae and Semionotidae in the gar lineage, and Ophiopsidae, Ionoscopidae, Caturidae and Sinamiidae in the bowfin lineage. The greatest diversity in both lineages was during the Jurassic and Cretaceous (Brito & Alvarado-Ortega 2013; Cavin 2010) and the two modern gar genera appear to have been separate lineages at least since the late Cretaceous (Grande 2010). Holosteans were also more ecologically diverse in the past. Masillosteus, a gar genus from the Eocene of Europe and North America, had a shorter jaw and flatter teeth than modern jaws, and probably fed on harder-shelled animals such as molluscs and/or crustaceans. The Mesozoic 'Semionotidae', suggested by Cavin (2010) to be paraphyletic to the gars, were even more diverse, including marine as well as freshwater forms, and forms that may have plant feeders or detritivores. In the early Jurassic of eastern North America, one group of semionotids underwent a lake-based radiation that has been compared to the modern cichlids of African rift lakes. Adequately covering the diversity of fossil holosteans would make this post considerably longer than it already is; perhaps one day, I'll get to it.


Brito, P. M. & J. Alvarado-Ortega. 2013. Cipatlichthys scutatus, gen. nov., sp. nov. a new halecomorph (Neopterygii, Holostei) from the Lower Cretaceous Tlayua Formation of Mexico. PLoS One 8 (9): e73551.

Cavin, L. 2010. Diversity of Mesozoic semionotiform fishes and the origin of gars (Lepisosteidae). Naturwissenschaften 97: 1035–1040.

Grande, L. 2010. An empirical synthetic pattern study of gars (Lepisosteiformes) and closely related species, based mostly on skeletal anatomy. The resurrection of Holostei. Copeia 2010 (2A): iii–x, 1–871.

1 comment:

  1. Is it known why holosteans have retained the heavy armour teleosts evidently do well without? They can't very well be systematically more subjected to predation pressure, can they?


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