Ray-Finned Fish  
This page was born 12/02/2009.  Rickubis designed it.  (such as it is.) Last update:11/09/2015
Images and contents on this page copyright 2002-2015 Richard M. Dashnau 

Here are my other Brazos Bend and/or critter pages:  
 ----------------------------------------------------------------                  OR,  FOR OTHER ANIMALS:
Alligators at Brazos Bend State Park Introduction              Critters at Brazos Bend State Park Page 1
Snakes-nonvenomous 1-------------------------------------------  Critters at Brazos Bend State Park Page 3
Snakes-nonvenomous 2-------------------------------------------------Insects, non-toxic
Snakes-nonvenomous 3------------------------------------------------Spiders
Birds-Waders----Birds-Raptors--------------------------------- Lizards!--Turtles!


11/9/2015  Since my investigation of the breaching fish, I've been looking through older video footage and photos of gar that I've filmed over the years. I've found a number of video clips 
showing gar (mostly Spotted Gar)gulping air.  In all the older material, including the Alligator gar I filmed this year, the breaching is not as active as it seemed to be in the video that I shot in September and October
of this year. I've added them to this page, but put them the chronological order of the rest of the page. In the slow video, I can see a consistent process which seems to take 
the 3 steps I've also described further down the page:  

1) The end of the jaws extend out of the water and open briefly (perhaps with slight opening of gill slits,).

2) The jaws and head extend further out of the water, and the jaws and gills slits open at the same time. A large quantity of gas is expelled from the gills slits, making large bubbles.

3)  The head submerged, the gar begins to sink. The gill slits open, and a small amount of gas is expelled making a small stream of bubbles.

At this time, I don't know exactly what is going on.

09/13/2015--10/11/2015  For some time this summer, fish have been "hitting" the surface of the water in various parts of the park. I'd been watching this
activity near the Spillway Trail. There was a lot of fish hitting the surface in Pilant Slough, from the Spillway west to the
Observation Tower (distance about 900 feet, according to Google Maps). I had assumed that most of the fish hitting the surface were Bowfin, and possibly Gar.  
I've observed both gar and bowin breathing air at BBSP before, and at those times, the breaching was relatively sedate.
*These* breaches were violent, sometimes spraying water for a wide area. And the activity brought many alligators there to hunt the fish.
I started watching more closely starting in September, where I determined that the fish seemed not to be hunting.
However, the water was usually obscured by glare or by murkiness, so I could not tell what kind of fish were surfacing. I was nearby when fisherman successfully caught
both bowfin ( Amia Calva) *and* gar (both spotted (Lepisosteus oculatus) and shortnosed(Lepisosteus platostomus).

                          BOWFIN                                             SHORTNOSE GAR
It seemed likely that these fish were the culprits, but I wanted to be sure. So, I started trying to capture high-speed video of the breaching events.
If I could capture an event at 210 frames per second, then I could play it back slower to identify the fish. This was
a bit difficult, but after 5 weekends (9/13/15 - 10/11/15), I caught enough video clips to make some identification. I've put these all together into one 5-minute clip.
I was able to identify bowfin in some of the clips. Most obvious identity key was the long dorsal fin, but the large blunt head and small pectoral fins were secondary keys.
Some of the other fish were gar; easily identifiable by the long, thin snout.  The clip is in 2 formats  here(wmv)  and here (mp4)
 The animated gifs were made with frames
from the video.

                               BOWFIN                                                 BOWFIN                                             PLECOSTOMUS?

But, I saw a fish in a few of the clips that I believe was neither a gar nor a bowfin. The fish were usually dark, with a rounded head, but the pectoral and
pelvic fins were very large-much larger than on a bowfin and closer together than those on a gar. The 3rd gif above shows this fish.
I believe that these fish are examples of plecostomus! I have found carcasses of plecostomus near some of our local bodies of water.
Here's a picture of one that I took near Buffalo Bayou in 2009.


And here is a picture of a live one that I filmed today at a local pet shop.


From some research online, I have found that "plecostomus" can refer to anumber of different species of fish. They are also known to surface periodically to "gulp air",
possibly for bouyancy control. I haven't seen anything that shows they use the oxygen. Gar and Bowfin are related, and both have lungs. In some of the literature I've read, these are called true lungs.

Accepted 19 January; published on WWW 5 March 1998 it is stated that lungs appeared in fish *before* swim bladders. (p.943) ;
During low-level exercise, more than 50% of oxygen used by both species came from the air.  Bowfin and Spotted gar.(p. 945)
and on P.947 Increasing temperature increases the rate of air-breathing in bowfin. Spotted gar also increase air-breathing with temp.
Air breathing may be more important to support activity than surviving in hypoxic water. The fish CAN get O2 from air
if there is none in the water, but this situation happens less than the need driven by activity.
Freshwater gars gulp air at the surface even at the highest levels of dissolved Oxygen.Page 38.
In another study, gar were obligate air breathers at oxygen lower than 4.5 ppm but active gar were obligatory air breathers at higher oxygen concentrations. So, rising temperatures could also cause more

surface breathing. p39 (By definition water is hypoxic if it doesn't have enough O2 to support life (< 2ppm)  http://toxics.usgs.gov/definitions/hypoxia.html
Normal is 8-10 ppm (parts per million)

May 24, 2015-- We'd been getting rain, and water levels have been good at the park. Since it was wet this morning, I decided to drive down to Elm Lake. When I drove over the floodgate at the end of Pilant Slough, I looked to my right--at where spillway that empties into Big Creek. What I saw there made me turn around, go back to the parking lot at the VC, and return with my camera.
The concrete spillway empties into a gully, which empties after curving about 300 yards into Big Creek, which flows past and continues out past Hale Lake and eventually into the Brazos River.
But, at the spillway, the water is relatively calm, and today it acted as a sort of "lagoon". And there, in the calm water of this lagoon, a large number of gar were swimming around. From time-to-time, the gar would come to the surface and--with a quick up-and-down of their head--gulp air.  I estimate that most of the gar swimming around were 12 to 18 inches long.  We have at least 3 species of gar in the park--Short-Nosed Gar, Spotted Gar, and Alligator Gar. I was going to try to see if I could see any Alligator Gar among those in the collection. Alligator Gar are separated from most other species of gar by a few physical differences. One of these (and not easily seen) is the *double* rows of teeth in their jaws. The other, is the broad, rounded shape to their snout. This broad head resembles that of an Alligator--which is a reason for the common name. But, it is also described in their taxonomic name-Atractosteus spatula (nose broad and flat). 
I watched in fascination as the gar moved about. I tried a few times to capture photos or video of them coming to the surface, so I could get a view of the top of their heads. It was hard to get these views because the dark water prevented sighting of a gar until just before it broke the surface. I wondered if I'd be able to identify an Alligator Gar among these foot-and-a-half long fish.
But, before too long, I had my answer.  Through the circular ripples of the moving fish, I saw a looming lighter shape under the water.  It made its way to the surface like a submarine, and then broke the surface.  As the head came up, water gushed out from the gill slits on each side. Then the mouth opened, closed, and submerged. The fish leisurely followed, and took a while to fully submerge. The head was at least 8 inches long...JUST THE HEAD. I'd found an alligator gar! Did I have the camera ready? NO. 
However, I continued watching. The large gar were there among the others, and as time passed, I saw them surface many times. I have no way of knowing if I was seeing the same Alligator gar...or the same few gars. But some of them were immense. I could not get close to the water, to get any certain measurement, but I think some of the gar could have been around 8 feet long.



I spent most of the day in that spot, watching those fish. I knew that this was a transitory, and relatively rare event (we rarely get water that high, in that spot), so I decided to make the most of it.
I shot many pictures, and short clips, trying to capture some images of those huge fish...and trying to get some footage that could give some sense of how large they were.



I didn't see anything that looked like feeding behavior. I didn't see any chasing, I didn't see any "bait" fish. I *did* see what seemed to be gar swimming in pairs--and a few times one surfaced, and another surfaced right behind it. 
All the splashing and activity finally attracted our other large aquatic predator--the Alligator Gar's namesake.  An alligator appeared from Big Creek. It was about 8 feet long, and moved leisurely towards the spillway. It encountered a stick about 5 feet long, and just pushed it along.I happened to be shooting video, trying to get some scale to the scene.  As I was filming, the alligator suddenly leapt up and forward. It had gone for one of the surfacing gar, but missed. The alligator moved back among the wooded cover, and I lost sight of it. I watched the gar until it was time to go home.
I've made two short video clips from some of the footage.  This clip was edited from footage shot at normal speed (30fps).  The alligator also appears in it:   Alligator Gar 05242015 (wmv format)    

The second clip is made from footage shot at 120 fps, and played back at 30; for slow-motion. These show the Alligator Gar gulping air at the surface. Unfortunately for me, while the camera was adjusted to lower light to "see" the fish under the surface; when the fish came out of the water, it was overexposed photographically. I tried to adjust this with software.  The slow motion clip is:  
Alligator Gar 05242015 slow (wmv format)    
I'd never encountered anything like an Alligator Gar until a dead one appeared in the spillway (not the same spillway we have now, but in the same spot) in 2002. I was able to salvage the skull from that fish, and I used it to prepare the exhibit that's in the Visitor's Center now.  That skull was about 12 inches long, from snout tip, to the rear of the head. The carcass-when I finally found it-was as long as one of our John Deere gators; about 8 1/2 feet long. Since 2002, many things have changed. The internet has changed, and perception of the Alligator Gar has changed.  The story of the gar in 2002 can be seen on this page.
Alligator Gar (Atractosteus spatula) have been a reviled, misunderstood species through much of its natural range. So much so, that its natural range has dwindled over the years. Texas is one of the few states with a remaining healthy population of Alligator Gar, and TPWD has been studing this fascinating creature to better understand it.  That wasn't the case in the 1930's when a man named J.G. Burr created "The Electrical Gar Destroyer" and began using it in various bodies of water. Others emulated him, and thousands of gar were killed (from what I could find, there is no mention of how many other animals died along with them).  But, things have taken a turn for the better, and now much more is known about them. 
One important fact is that it can take 40 years for a gar to grow to 8 feet long. Another is that Alligator Gar can only spawn when certain circumstances occur: there must be ground flooding, and the temperature must be correct (at least 68degrees).  I believe that I was watching courtship or spawning today--especially when a pair of gar would surface.  As I mentioned, Alligator Gar have 2 rows of teeth in their upper jaws, with the 2nd row in the roof of their mouth. They have a "vascularized" swim bladder--which they can use to collect air and then get oxygen from it. Their skeletal system has a combination of bone and cartilagenous features--a sort of crossover from skeletons of sharks and those of true "bony" fish. Gar are covered with thick, strong ganoid scales. They are opportunistic predators, and hunt many types of smaller prey, but most often eat "forage fish" like gizzard shad. Claims that they decimate populations of game fish (such as bass) have turned out to be unfounded. Ongoing genetic studies have shown Alligator Gar to be most closely related to Bowfin (Amia calva).--which ALSO live here in the park.
Alligator Gar are not only big, but very unique fish. And....they are just one of the creatures that live here in our park. And I got to watch a group of them swimming freely right here.

Here are some good links to information about Alligator Gar:  
This article in Texas Parks magazine:    http://www.tpwmagazine.com/archive/2015/mar/ed_3_gar/index.phtml
The general description on the TPWD site:  https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/alg/
and another page here:  http://www.fishesoftexas.org/taxon/atractosteus-spatula

There are many other pages, but these were related to fish in Texas. 

July 24, 2011 (added 11/09/2015) And another week later, and the Spotted Gar are still moving around. I continued shooting high-speed video, hoping to catch some hunting activity.
I still didn't see any. I did get another clip of breathing. I've manipulated this clip to show how quickly this happens, and also to slow it even more. 
The 10 images below are frame grabs from this video clip.




July 17, 2011 (added 11/06/2015) A week later, and the Spotted Gar are still moving around. I continued shooting high-speed video, hoping to catch some hunting activity.
But, I didn't see any. I did get a few more clips of them breathing.  This seems to be a 3-step process. First, the tips of the jaws break the surface and open briefly.
Next, air is expelled from the gill slits--usually in large bubbles. Then most of the head breaks the surface, and the jaws open and close again before the head
submerges.  As the gar sinks after this, a small trickle of bubbles leaks from the gill slits. the 10 images below are frame grabs from this video clip, which shows 2 surfacing events. 




July 10, 2011 (added 11/03/2015) Gar and Bowfin are distantly related, and both can breathe air. On this day, I was able to see Spotted Gar (Lepisoseus Oculatus) and
Bowfin swimming near each other. The three images below are frame grabs from this video clip. The gar gulps air once in the clip. 


May 3, 2009 (added 10/31/2015) I watched this gar swimming in Elm Lake, and was able to film it taking a gulp of air--at 210 frames per second. The images below are frame grabs
from this video clip. This is how I usually see gar coming up for air. They slowly approach the surface, then tilt their jaws out of the water, open them-then air seems to flush through
the gill slits, and the gar slowly sinks under.




November  10, 2002 The image below (BOWFIN) is of an interesting "primitive" fish called a "Bowfin".
The water at the park got very high. In fact the nearby Big Creek was so filled that the water from Pilant Slough, which normally flows out of the park, was flowing back INTO the park from Big Creek. As evidence of the amount of water we received, here it the fishing pier on Hale Lake, the deck of which usually stays at least 10 feet above water level (see HALE LAKE PIER, below).  This happened for about 2 days, until the water level dropped in Big Creek . As the water started flowing back out of Pilant Slough, other bodies of water were free to drain. 40 Acre lake started flowing back under the footbridge, and a few predatory fish stationed themselves in the sluggish flow. Among them were a few Bowfin, and a few Spotted Gar (see image below).  These fish were about 15 inches long. It is interesting to me that these "primitive" fish both inhabit the park, right along with various perch, sunfish and bass. Of course, let's not forget the Alligator Gar! The image below (HEAD AND SPINE) shows my completed gar as it is now.

                                BOWFIN                                                               SPOTTED GAR                                                      GAR HEAD AND SPINE                                               HALE LAKE PIER

October  20, 2002 A rather cool, wet weekend. However, on Sunday, some alligators showed themselves right after the sun finally came through the clouds.  On Saturday, we had the Volunteer Picnic at the park. During this, I'm proud to say, I received an award for "Outstanding Volunteer" from the Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer's Organization. Apparently, this was due to votes cast by a number of volunteers. Thanks, everyone! I have a great time doing things at the park, and then I GET AWARDED FOR IT! Is that great, or WHAT? The image below middle (RICKUBIS LIKES FISH)  shows some older guy, Rickubis(yes, that's me), attempting to reconstruct the spine of a very large Alligator Gar--on the dining room table. In fact, this is the same gar I've talked about before.  So far, I've gone out on three occasions to dig and scrape and find these vertebrae. So far, I've found about 48. I'm not sure how many more there might be, but I can't seem to find any more. I'm sure I have a large part of it.  The spine I can reconstruct is about 48 inches ,or 4 feet long. The image below right (LONG SPINE) shows what I have so far.  Add the length of the head, about 20 inches, and I have 68 inches of a 96-inch long fish accounted for. I have no idea of the length of the tail spines, nor the distance between vertebrae. I'll see if I can get a count of how many there are supposed to be.

                  FRONT VIEW     -------------                RICKUBIS LIKES FISH-------------  ---------------LONG SPINE

September 24, 2002 This series of pictures show the construction of the display for the Alligator Gar skull. (pictures added 6/3/2015).




May 05, 2002
Tuesday, April 23, I got to the park around 8:00 am. I hadn't been on the trail 10 minutes (I started at the 40-Acre Lake parking lot), when I encountered a copperhead stretched across the trail near Hoot's Hollow.  I  was able to take a few pictures before it got bored with me and continued across the trail.(COPPERHEAD, below)  Notice the coloration of the scales and the shape of the head. Also, the nostril is the small opening at the tip of its nose. You might notice another opening between the nostril and the eye. This pit is what gives "pit vipers" their name. It's a heat sensor, and aids the snake in stalking food. Copperheads are poisonous, and as stated in signs throughout Brazos Bend State Park, "POISONOUS SNAKES EXIST IN THIS PARK".  The snakes belong in the park. Humans are only visitors there. Visitors should keep a close eye on their children and pets while they are in the park, for this reason.

April 07, 2002    Kind of a quiet day today. More storm weather was due in our area. However, this morning, I was allowed to join David, one of the Park Naturalists, and we took a quick survey of some recently-deceased park denizens. Among them was the huge gar that I've shown pictures of here, which I'd first encountered on March 17. I'd wanted to do a quick dissection of the gar to determine what it might have eaten, but was unable to find it until today; much too late for this. Making the best of the situation, I was able to take some more pictures that showed how large the gar is. Yes, that is a John Deere Gator in the picture below (By the Gator), next to the gar. I also took a few pictures of the skull. (MY FOOT (below)) and (TEETH (below)).  Those teeth are sharp!


-          ---BY THE GATOR------               ------MY FOOT-M -----                 --------TEETH                                 COPPERHEAD-

March 17, 2002  They were draining the Pilant Slough, and as the water level receded, aquatic creatures were trapped in waning pools of water. The alligators evidently capitalized on this turn of events, and rested on the newly-exposed banks near the observation tower in great numbers. See (lots of gators) below. Then, on the low end of the Slough, where the water was exiting the floodgate, a large fish got caught in the concrete breakwater. This was an alligator gar.  See the images below. The first shot shows it as it was found. I tried to move this fish, but I was only able to expose its head, which had been crushed.  Note the size of the concrete uprights. I'm standing on, and you'll get an idea of the scale of this fish. It was HUGE.
---       LLOTS OF GATORS----              ---GAR AS IT WAS FOUND-           ---MY FOOT BY THE HEAD----           ------THE HEAD------------


The Alligator Gar's Story:
In March of 2002, the floodgate at the bottom of Pilant Slough, near the Nature Center, was opened. This was done to drain the slough so that the floodgate could be repaired. Sometime after this, a number of people noticed a huge fish caught in the breakwater at the floodgate opening.  Here is the fish as it appeared on March 17, 2002.

            GAR AS IT WAS FOUND---                    -MY FOOT BY THE HEAD--                     --------THE HEAD-------                   -----THE ENTIRE FISH
The fish is an Alligator Gar (Lepisosteus spatula).  Note that each one of those concrete ?teeth? in the floodgate is about one foot across.  The gar was removed and dragged out to a remote location in the park.
Alligator Gars will eat other fish, though it is reported that they will sometimes take waterfowl. It?s very likely that a gar will eat anything that it can catch, including turtles and smaller alligators.  Unfortunately, too much time had passed before this gar could be examined to allow dissection for viewing its stomach contents.  It should be noted here that most popular game fish, like Largemouth Bass, are generally too vigorous for the Alligator Gar to catch.  Some time later, the condition of the gar was checked. The plan was to allow various park scavengers to clean the carcass. Here are other pictures of the gar, taken April 7, 2002.

---          -BY THE GATOR------              ------MY FOOT-M -----              --------TEETH
The gar is pictured near one of the John Deere Gators used by Brazos Bend State Park.  The gar did not break down easily for a number of reasons. A hot, dry summer and the heavy scales covering the body probably prevented effective scavenging of the carcass.  On April 23, Park Volunteer Rick Dashnau salvaged the head and developed this project. The gar?s head was kept in the specimen freezer for some weeks while Rick and the Park Naturalists tried to figure out how best to clean it.  What made cleaning this prize so difficult was its size. It barely fits into a five-gallon bucket! On August 7, a small cage was built (to prevent larger scavengers from disturbing the head), and the head was placed in an ant nest for further cleaning.  Finally, the skull was clean enough to work with. Rick Dashnau was able to finish cleaning and preparing the skull, and also able to build the case to display it on September 24, 2002.

I'll note here that we measured one of these John Deer gators today. It was 8.5 feet long! Also, here are four more pictures of the Alligator Gar.  The first one (ANT CAGE) shows the cage I built for the head so I could place it in an ant nest. The next two (STILL NOT, and 12 INCHES) show the head after the last treatment; a week long bath in a solution of 1 gallon bleach/4 gallons water. This was before I stripped off the remaining flesh.  The measurement is from the end of the snout to approximately the center of the eye socket. These were taken on September 19th...the same day as my images of the 3-fanged Cottonmouth.  The next two (SIDE VIEW, FRONT VIEW) are of the gar's head as we first displayed it. We placed it on top of the display featuring the skeleton of an 8-foot long alligator.
What I can't stop thinking about is the image of this huge prehistoric fish stalking the waters of the park--as large and as voracious as a good-sized alligator!

              08/07/02 ANT CAGE                               8STILL....NOT QUITE                               12 INCHES TIP TO EYE                                     SIDE VIEW   

The gar is pictured near one of the John Deere Gators used by Brazos Bend State Park.  The gar did not break down easily for a number of reasons. A hot, dry summer and the heavy scales covering the body probably prevented effective scavenging of the carcass.  On April 23, Park Volunteer Rick Dashnau salvaged the head and developed this project. The gar?s head was kept in the specimen freezer for some weeks while Rick and the Park Naturalists tried to figure out how best to clean it.  What made cleaning this prize so difficult was its size. It barely fits into a five-gallon bucket! On August 7, a small cage was built (to prevent larger scavengers from disturbing the head), and the head was placed in an ant nest for further cleaning.  Finally, the skull was clean enough to work with. Rick Dashnau was able to finish cleaning and preparing the skull, and also able to build the case to display it on September 24, 2002.

If you'd like to know more about the park follow these links:

Brazos Bend State Park   The main page.

Brazos Bend State Park Volunteer's Page  The volunteer's main page.

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