Answer to Quiz Question

What American fish can grow to over 100 pounds, has no teeth, eats microscopic plankton, and resembles a shark with a big nose?

The Paddlefish
Early European explorers encountered this strange beast in North America's large rivers. Records of the paddlefish date back to DeSoto's Expedition through the Southeast from 1539 to 1542.

Archeologists have uncovered fossils of paddlefish in rock formations around the Green River in Wyoming that date back over 50 million years. Yet major aspects of its biology remain mysterious. And its common name, spoonbill cat, suggests that some anglers remain unsure of its place in the animal kingdom.

In early America, paddlefish inhabited the large free-flowing rivers of the Mississippi Valley, extending north into Ontario and west to the Missouri River in Montana. Commercial fishing and dam construction later eliminated paddlefish from several river drainages and four states. They thrive in some impoundments, however, and today are found in 22 states.

The paddlefish skeleton is cartilage, except for a small amount of bone in the jaw. To feed, adult paddlefish swim through clouds of zooplankton, engulfing whatever can't swim out of their way. Their long thin gill rakers then strain the water, filtering food organisms from it. Young paddlefish feed by sight on zooplankton until their gill rakers fully develop at a length of about 16 inches.

Paddlefish do not spawn until they are relatively old--about 8 for males and 10 for females. Harvest of immature fish (females may weigh 30 pounds and be immature) has hurt populations in several areas. Spawning takes place over shallow gravel bars with current, but only when appropriate water temperature, day length, and flow rate coincide. Throughout its range, spawning may take place from late March to late June, when water temperature is in the mid-50F range.

Dams have flooded many natural spawning sites and even where spawning sites persist, sudden fluctuations in water level caused by flood control and hydroelectric operations strand fertilized eggs or hatchlings.

Young paddlefish grow quickly, reaching up to 20 inches at age-1. After age-5, growth rate slows to about 2 inches per year. Maximum age is around 40 years.