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logo_main by: Matt Miller  senior science writer

 

 

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce they were the river’s top predator: a fish that could reach ten feet or more, with thick armored plates as scales and imposing jagged teeth. You would see their long, tooth snouts poking out from the river’s surface, gulping air, their adaptation for thriving in warm, deoxygenated water.

Alligator gar caught at Moon Lake, Mississippi. March 1910

Alligator gar caught at Moon Lake, Mississippi. March 1910

Alligator gar

They thrived in a large swath of mid-western and southern waters, but by the early 1900s, they were already starting to disappear, a trend that continues to this day.

They were declared extinct in Illinois in 1994. But a new restoration and research effort aims to bring back these incredible fish, and help conservationists at other rivers and waters better protect them.

When fisheries biologists Rod Hilsabeck and Trent Thomas of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources decided to return the alligator gar to their state, they knew they needed a perfect location. The Nature Conservancy’s Spunky Bottoms Preserve fit everything they sought.

Formerly farmland, Spunky Bottoms is now 2000 acres of restored wetlands and uplands. It consisted of perfect gar habitat: backwaters and sluggish pools with lots of vegetation. It also was not connected to the adjacent Illinois River, making it easier for researchers to capture and study the fish.

Research is a key component to the reintroduction. Nathan Grider, a master’s student in biology at the University of Illinois-Springfield, is working with Dr. Michael Lemke and partners to study two key aspects of gar restoration.

They are studying how fast gar will grow when restocked into an area. They are also analyzing their diet, and in particular, if the gar will eat (and control) the non-native carp that swim Spunky Bottoms and so many other waters.

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