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Paddlefish: A prehistoric fish brought back from near extinction!

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


American Paddlefish
American Paddlefish. Photo Credit: koamnewsnow.com

According to researchers, since 1900, at least 57 species and subspecies of North American freshwater fish have become extinct. This number is staggering!

In most cases, the reasons for fish species extinction are overfishing, water pollution, and building of dams that prevents migration of many fish species. The prehistoric American Paddlefish is one example of a fish species affected by lack of migratory paths. Although, luckily, this species has been just brought back from total extinction, its Chinese cousin has not survived. The Paddlefish lineage goes back to decades before the age of dinosaurs!


Paddlefish are a family of ray-finned fish and one of two extant groups of the order along with the sturgeons. They are distinguished from other fish by their titular elongated rostrums, which are thought to enhance electroreception to detect prey. Paddlefish have been referred to as "primitive fish" because they are amongst the earliest diverging lineages of ray-finned fish, having diverged from all other living groups over 300 million years ago. Paddlefish are almost exclusively North American and Chinese, both extant and in the fossil records.

 

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There are six known species of Paddlefish: four extinct species known only from fossil remains (three from western North America, one from China), one extant species, the American Paddlefish which is native to the Mississippi River basin in the USA, and the Chinese Paddlefish, declared extinct recently in 2022.


Paddlefish grow up to 87 inches (221 cm) long - that's over 7 feet (2.1 m) long! They can weigh as much as 200 lbs (91 Kgs), but most are usually between 10-15 lbs (4.5-6.8 Kgs). Paddlefish have a gray, shark-like body with a deeply forked tail, and a long, flat blade-like snout; almost one third of its body's entire length. Resembling sharks in shape, their skeletons also resemble those of a shark. Both Paddlefish and sharks have skeletons made of cartilage not bone. With no body scales, the Paddlefish gill cover is long and comes to a point-like shape. They like to live in slow moving water of large rivers or reservoirs, usually in water deeper than about 4 feet (130 cm).


American Paddlefish
American Paddlefish. Photo Credit: mdc.mo.org

Paddlefish have no teeth and eat by swimming through the water with their mouth wide open, scooping up tiny plants and animals in the water called plankton. They filter out the food with their gill rakers. The underside of the Paddlefish's "paddle" is covered with taste buds (like the ones on our tongue). Their rostrum and cranium are covered with tens of thousands of sensory receptors for locating swarms of zooplankton, their primary food source.


In the USA, the native range of Paddlefish includes the Mississippi River basin from New York to Montana and in south to the Gulf of Mexico. Historically in Texas, Paddlefish lived in the Red River's tributaries, Sulphur River, Big Cypress Bayou, Sabine River, Neches River, Angelina River, Trinity River, and San Jacinto River.

The State of Texas has protected the Paddlefish since 1977. It is considered a threatened species. It is unlawful to catch, kill or harm Paddlefish in Texas.


Despite this, the Paddlefish face many problems in Texas. They need large amounts of flowing water to reproduce. The construction of dams and reservoirs along the Texas rivers have decreased water flow and have interrupted spawning.

The eggs of Paddlefish are used to make caviar, a delicacy. When obtaining eggs becomes difficult, and expensive, the Russian Paddlefish eggs are often illegally poached.


A silver lining in the dark cloud - in June 2022, one thousand ancient Paddlefish were released in Cado Lake, Texas. Now that the habitat has been restored, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Caddo Lake Institute have worked together to restore the population of the Paddlefish to a healthy level.


Chinese Paddlefish. Now, sadly, extinct in wild.
Chinese Paddlefish. Now, sadly, extinct in wild. Photo Credit: globaltime.cn/Wei Qiwei. Photo taken at Yichang-Central, Hubei-province, China in1993

Did You Know?

  • Sturgeon: Akin to the Paddlefish, the sturgeon is a common name of some 27 species of fish whose history goes back to the Early Jurassic period, some 174 to 201 million years ago!

  • Rostrum of the Paddlefish: Made of cartilage and long in shape, the rostrum of a Paddlefish functions as an electro sensory antenna, to locate its main source of food, the plankton.

  • Cranium of the Paddlefish: The bony cranium forms a case around a fish’s head.

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