Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Love Ancient Fish EPISODE I: Bowfin

Image by Solomon David, curator of the fabulous Also, possessor of the most Torah-iffic name I've ever heard.
This week I visited my hometown of Sulphur, Louisiana, and couldn't help but notice the word "choupique". Choupique Bayou, some kind of Cajun sausage hut involving the word "choupique"...the word seemed familiar but wouldn't quite come to me, so I looked it up when I got home. "Choupique" is the name used for the bowfin, Amia calva, in South Louisiana.
Like so many other fish, the choupique goes by a wide variety of confusing names, such as "mudfish", "speckled cat" (probably because they have barbels; they are NOT catfish), "grindle", "cypress trout" (they are not trout), "lawyer" and "dogfish". Personally, I think "dogfish" is the worst of these because "dogfish" conjures images of small sharks, not these guys. I suppose it could be worse, there's the good ol' mahi-mahi/dolphin name issue that alarmed me as a very young fish dork.

In addition to the fish, "Choupique" is also the name of a Louisiana band depicted here in what appears to be gay Klan attire, bless their hearts (no seriously, that's just a joke guys, no allegations of racism here)
The bowfin, like its excellent brethren the gar, bichir, coelacanth and others, is considered a living fossil. Bowfin flourished during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the Mesozoic, making them contemporaries of superstar dinosaurs Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus. This is not a recent fish. Like several other types of "living fossil" (e.g. Nautilidae, the nautiluses, who are spiffy and deserve their own entry), the bowfin is the only remaining member of its family (Amiidae).
PRO-TIP: Here's a handy tour of events through geologic time, courtesy the San Diego Natural History Museum. The good folks at the Geological Society of America have even made up a colorful PDF chart of geologic time that you can print up and tape to your wall/give to your loved ones so you never have to look too far to see when the PLIENSBACHIAN AGE was.
So why are they called bowfin?
Bowfin are distinguished by their very long dorsal fin.

The dorsal fin is the fin(s) running along the length of the fish's back. Most fish have fairly short dorsal fin(s); the bowfin is not most fish.
What kind of sweet prehistoric features do they have?
Bowfin have a couple: in particular, the gular plate and their kind-of lung. The gular plate is a large bony plate located in their mouths. Gular plates are not unique to bowfins, they're also found in Elopidae (ladyfishes, skip-jacks), Megalopidae (tarpon) and Albulidae (bonefishes); other types of gular plate are found in living fossil-mates the coelacanth and the bichir. For photographic details, here's a drawing from The Dictionary of Ichthyology. Other owners of gular plates include the bowfin's evil twin, the snakehead. Notice that snakeheads have long anal and dorsal fins.
I hate to give any species bad press, so I need to say that snakeheads are not evil in their appropriate context. However, as an invasive species they can wreak havoc on ecosystems.
Regarding their lung, while bowfin do not have lungs in the same manner as lungfish, their swim bladder can function as a primitive lung and they may take oxygen by breathing air. This behavior is also exhibited by those perennial aquarium darlings, the betta and the gourami, though they possess a different type of lung-like organ (called the labyrinth organ; will be visited later). Being able to obtain oxygen through a method other than gills is very helpful when you live in low-oxygen environments, which are incidentally the habitats in which both bowfins and bettas are found.
Also, here is a picture of a bowfin skull:

Image by Udo M. Savalli
As you can see, they feature the armored head that I love so dearly in old-school fish.
Do I want to a catch a bowfin?
Maybe. Bowfin are renowned for their enthusiastic fighting and penchant for biting, much like my cat. With these fish, the fight continues after they've been removed from the water, so come prepared with leather gloves. To quote The Bowfin Anglers' Group, possibly the people on the Internet who are most excited by bowfin, "Bowfin fight like cat[fish]s or carp on speed" and "The bowfin has sharp teeth that will make hamburger of a careless thumb".
Do I want to eat a bowfin?
Depends who you ask. The good folks down at the Bowfin Anglers' Group seem to think so and provide recipes for your perusal. Folks at other message boards give opinions ranging from "tastes like fish jello", "the cats wouldn't eat it" to "if you cook it quickly after it's killed it's okay". In my neck of the woods people definitely eat bowfin, but my people are also from the swamp and eat pretty much anything, so take that with a pinch of file.
Can I keep one in an aquarium?
Not with other fish if you're not using them as feeders. Bowfin pretty much eat anything, including each other. If you're feeling saucy, I hear they're fans of crawfish.
Anything else I should know?
Male bowfin are very protective of their young, to the point that they will display aggressive behavior (i.e. take a chunk out of you) if you happen to be wandering around their habitat and they feel you have come too close their fry.
References/Recommended Reading:
Brent Courchene on bowfin
FishBase's entry on bowfin
The Bowfin Anglers' Group
Alan Richmond of the University of Massachusetts on bowfin

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Some of y'all know that I am an enormous fan of primitive fish. They allow us a view of what the Age of Fishes was like to some extent, and everyone knows that the Devonian Period was by far the coolest part of the Paleozoic Era, which was filled with cool stuff. Anyway, I was playing around at Endangered Ugly Things yesterday and eventually came upon, an Australia-based breeder of Australian lungfish for the aquarist market. I don't want to post images from there without their permission, so just go look at their gallery - their lungfish are absolutely adorable, though all lungfish are terribly cute.
I first learned about lungfish as a child from a general "facts about animals" book my parents got me for Christmas one year. It had an illustration of a lungfish curled up in its muddy pocket and I was sold. Incidentally, this is the same book that taught me about jackdaws and Surinam toads.
Continuing with our story, it was through these links that I learned about Granddad, the oldest fish aquarium fish known, who also happens to be an Australian lungfish. Granddad has lived in Chicago since 1933, making him at least 80 years old. Next time I head over Chicago-way, I plan on paying my respects to this venerable fish.

I later ended up at, which is pretty much a goldmine of these guys: bichirs, lungfish, coelacanths, gars (the first fish I ever caught), bowfins, bonytongues (arapaimas), knifefish, etc; awesome fish who I plan to talk about more in-depth later. This site in turn links to their forum, Aquatic, which I intend to join and drool over - c'mon, they have a mormyrid forum! Everybody loves mormyrids!

Who can say no to a face like that?

I'm not the only lungfish lover out there, though: there's and Anne Kemps Lungfish for all your lungfish info needs.
Nature also has an unfortunate editorial circa 2006 about the damming of the river that the Australian lungfish inhabits. Checking up on Wikipedia (always the scholarly source), it doesn't appear that the dam has been constructed yet (the projected timeframe was 2011) and there is substantial local opposition. Lungfish aren't the only species that would be affected by the dam: other non-human residents who'd be affected include the Mary River Cod and the Mary River Turtle, both endangered species.
More information can be found at, "...the official website of the SaveTheMaryRiver Coordinating Group - an organization dedicated to preventing the construction of a proposed dam on the Mary River at Traveston Crossing (Qld)."
NEWS FLASH: There was a substantial lungfish kill reported on June 25th below the North Pine Dam. More links to news articles may be found here.