Naturalist Fact: Alligator Gar


Alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) are a true prehistoric creature that have remained a hearty predator for millions of years. They have been compared with the earliest terrestrial tetrapods which evolved from the ocean during the late Devonian period. Alligator gar are the largest species in the Gar family (Lepisosteidae), reaching up to 400 pounds and 12 feet in length! The rostrum, or mouth of an alligator gar is short and broad with two rows of extremely sharp alligator-like teeth on the upper jaw, unlike other species of gar which contain one row of teeth. These fish have an elongated body with a single dorsal and anal fin posterior near the heterocercal (rounded) caudal fin. A thick row of nonoverlapping and diamond shaped ganoid scales cover the body, acting as an armor layer to protect from predation. Alligator gar are generally dark olive-brown in color, with dark brown fins and a yellow belly. It is easy to spot gar in a body of water because they contain a lung-like gas bladder which they inflate by taking in gulps of atmospheric oxygen from the water surface! This allows them to reach various levels of the water column by inflating and burping out gas from their gas bladder.

It is common to find alligator gar in slow-moving pools and creeks extended from larger rivers, bayous, lakes, and swamps—mainly in the Mississippi Delta. Alligator gar are mainly piscivores, or consumers of fish, but also eat snakes, small mammals, turtles, and birds. Females generally lay 138,000 eggs which cling to vegetation or rocky substrate in which two or three males will fertilize simultaneously. Females can also live up to 50 years, while males only live up to 25 years old!

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Naturalist Fact: Cownose Ray

Cownose Ray (Rhinoptera bonasus)

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First things first: despite their common names of “cownose stingray” and “skate”, cownose rays are technically neither! Cownose rays are unique, so they belong to their very own family of rays. However, these interesting-looking ocean-dwellers can still pack a stinging punch, so avoid the venomous barb at the base of the tail. According to legend, Captain John Smith had an encounter with a cownose ray in Virginia, and the location still bears the name “Stingray Point”.

Despite these cautionary tales, cownose rays are known for their passiveness and will only sting when provoked. They are a common site along their shallow Atlantic coast migration path; found as far north as New England and as far south as Brazil. They often travel in large groups, called “schools”, that are formed based on the sex and age of the rays. Since they use their fins for locomotion, these underwater schools resemble flocks of large birds in underwater flight.

Cownose rays typically reach a wingspan of three feet, which comes in handy when they forage. The rays use their large fins to disturb mollusks in the seafloor sediments, and then they crush their prey using powerful dental plates.

On Little St. Simons, look for cownose rays along the edges of Mosquito Creek during a kayaking adventure—sometimes they even raise a fin to “wave”!

Fun Fact: The stinging barb on a cownose ray grows the same way as your finger nails, so the rays you see in “Touch Tanks” at aquariums are regularly clipped for safety.


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