Science //

Alligator Gar

Matt Withers won’t be seeing this alligator later

Ferocity is not an attribute often associated with freshwater fish, bar of course the piranha, whose notoriety has been cemented by a few isolated incidences of mass-murder and an eponymous 3D film. However, these razor-teethed schooling fish of the Amazon pale in comparison to North America’s largest freshwater species, the monstrous Atractosteus spatula or ‘Alligator Gar’.

At an early age these primitive, elongated fishes assume a rather elegant guise; streamlined and dappled with dark spots against a golden-olive body, juveniles often wind up as exotic oddballs in the aquarium trade. Buyer beware, however. At two-foot in length a juvenile specimen is already pushing the limits of all but the largest of home aquariums. Adulthood is another kettle of fish altogether (see what I did there?) The unassuming, wide-eyed innocence of the young animal soon fades away as rapid, protein-induced growth transforms the fish into a beast more deserving of its namesake.

Maxing out at roughly nine feet and 160 kilograms, and sporting a tooth-studded jaw to shame most crocodiles, the adult alligator gar is a truly fearsome spectacle. The gaping jaws of the individual below no doubt confers this point more succinctly than any description I can muster.

However, despite all my sensationalism and its leviathan-like appearance, to label the alligator gar a brute is something of a misdemeanor. Though certainly carnivorous (being an ambush predator, much like alligators themselves) and subject to intermittent folk-devilry stemming from unconfirmed reports of attacks on humans, the alligator gar is quite a solitary and docile fish. Sadly, as is so often the case with evolution’s larger produce, human-gar relations are skewed against the latter.

A drawling, tongue-in-cheek Kurt Cobain once noted “it’s OK to eat fish, because they don’t have any feelings”, neatly encapsulating the fate of many of this particular species. While big game hunting appears taboo for all but the Spanish royal family, aquatic giants are not accorded the same grace. As Google Images will readily attest, the alligator gar is a common target for US sports fishing, being more frequently sighted on dinner plates or as formaldehyde-encrusted wall mountings than as wild animals.