New York's Disrespected Living Fossil
Article by Randy Jackson, Senior Research Associate, Cornell University
One of New York's most unique fish, the bowfin is the sole living survivor of a group of fishes whose fossil representatives date back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth. The features of today's bowfin differ very little from their fossil ancestors dating back 65 million years, so they offer a true glimpse into New York's prehistoric past.
Bowfin are widespread through the eastern United States. Their native range extends from the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers and Lake Champlain west through the Great lakes and south down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, west to the Texas border, east through the state of Florida and up the Atlantic coast. In New York, they can be found in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain drainages and have been introduced into a few waters in the southeastern part of the state.
The bowfin's appearance is as distinctive as its character. Their body is roughly torpedo shaped, with a bullet-shaped head. Their mouth contains rows of short, sharp teeth on both the upper and lower jaws. The fin along their back runs more than half the total length of the fish, and the tail fin is larger towards the top than the bottom. Bowfin are greenish in color, sometimes with brown or gray shading, and have a white or yellow underside. The fins and underside of males often take on a bright lime green color during the spawning season. Male bowfin also have a distinctive dark spot near the tail fin that is oftentimes ringed with orange or yellow.
Bowfin spawn in New York in May or June. Like bass, male bowfin build nests and attract spawning females who deposit eggs and leave the spawning grounds. Males guard the eggs and young until they reach sizes of 3 inches or more.
The bowfin has a fleshy swim bladder that functions much like our lungs, allowing them to obtain oxygen by gulping air. Although bowfin are often found in the same heavily vegetated areas preferred by largemouth bass, they are particularly well-suited to swampy habitats with low oxygen. The bowfin is a voracious predator, with a fondness for crayfish, but will readily feed on any available fish.
Wherever they are found, bowfin suffer from a bad public image. They are known regionally by a variety of common names- dogfish, mudfish, grindle, ling, and lawyer-all suggestive of their status as a fish people love to hate. Both anglers and the earliest generations of fish biologists thought that the bowfin's predatory nature made it a threat to more desirable sport fish. Efforts were undertaken in many waters to reduce bowfin numbers.
Important Part of Our Fish Communities
We know now that bowfin are an important part of the balance of our fish communities, helping control the numbers of prey fish capable of overpopulating our waters, and rarely consuming other sport fish or acting as a serious competitor with them for food.
A Prized Gamefish?
While their aggressive nature does not threaten populations of more popular fish, it does instill them with many of the traits anglers prize in a fish. They frequently attack lures aggressively and can put up a tremendous fight, particularly when fishing with lighter tackle. Bowfin can be caught while fishing the same habitats, and with the same techniques and lures used for largemouth bass, and seem particularly fond of the color purple. Their fighting instincts can make landing them a struggle, and their sharp teeth also make them well-equipped for breaking fishing lines.
Bowfin reach sizes that would challenge any angler. The current state record is a 12-pound, 14-ounce fish caught from Lake Champlain. The world record is a 21-pound 8-ounce fish caught in South Carolina. Their flesh is soft, and not considered edible by most, so this is a fish best suited for the catch-and-release angler.
Because they are not generally valued as a sport or food fish, few detailed studies of bowfin have been conducted by fish biologists. One recent exception is a study by Cornell University biologists on Oneida Lake. They implanted radio transmitters in 40 bowfin and tracked them from 2009-2011.
Prior to the study, most biologists assumed bowfin were lethargic fish, staying close to preferred habitats and moving little. Many of the Oneida bowfin proved much more energetic-sometimes moving eight miles or more between weekly locations. Bowfin occupied unique spawning and growing season habitats, but individual fish returned annually to the same areas they were found in the year before, exhibiting a fidelity to home areas. This study adds a little light to the character of the bowfin, and combined with their unique place in New York's fish fauna, will hopefully help people appreciate them and their place in our waters.