Dr. Solomon Davis is a true gar expert. He’s a professor at Nicholls State University, which is home to GarLab, a unique research team focused specifically on understanding the conservation biology of gar species. Among many other accomplishments, his team recently pioneered a non-lethal way to way to conduct gar sampling.
Gar are considered an ancient fish. They’ve been around for some 157 million years. There are seven species of gar native to the waters of North America today. The sheer size of some alligator gar, which are the largest species of gar, has attracted a lot of recent media attention. Yet, historically, gars have received relatively little scientific research compared to many species of popular game fish, like bass or trout. Solomon is working hard to change that—and to make sure people understand the ecological importance of gars. We recently sat down with him to discuss his interest in gar, the term “rough fish,” the future of gar management, and more.
How did you become interested in gar?
I’ve always been interested in the outdoors and nature, and especially underappreciated and unusual animals like reptiles and amphibians. Like a lot of kids, I was interested in dinosaurs. But what really got me interested in gar was the nature magazine Ranger Rick. When I was 11, I was given an old back issue, and I flipped to the middle of it. There was this giant alligator gar that had very dinosaur-like characteristics, including large jaws with lots of teeth. It really fascinated me.
Did you go fishing when you were a kid?
Yeah. I wasn’t necessarily an avid angler, but I enjoyed fishing. We’d get bluegills, other panfish, and even creek chubs from time to time, but I’d basically put a worm on a hook and cast out there and see what I could get. I wouldn’t necessarily target a particular species. Even back then, I was interested in the diversity of fishes.
What was it about alligator gar that makes them so special to you?
It was this particular species that introduced me to gars as a kid. This fish looked like it was straight out of dinosaur times—which it is. Gars have a very prehistoric and ancient lineage and haven’t changed a whole lot since then. If you were to look at fossil gars from millions and millions of years ago, they look very similar to the modern gars we see today. That prehistoric appearance has always fascinated me, and alligator gars, of course, are just giant.
Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we’ve had the opportunity to work with some big alligator gars in the past year. It’s like you’re heaving in a dinosaur. When we’re tagging those fish and they exhale out of that gas bladder, it reminds me of that Triceratops scene in the original Jurassic Park where there’s one on its side and it’s breathing up and down.
They’re also very resilient. They’re air-breathing and have armored scales and poisonous eggs. From the conservation angle, they’ve had this tenuous relationship with humans during our coexistence, where some people like them, some people hate them, and some people are trying to bring them back from the edge of extinction. I think that they’re kind of underdogs in some ways, although they’re growing in popularity in recent years.
How old can alligator gar actually get?
The oldest one that they’ve aged was about 95 years old, but what we’re finding is that we’ve been underestimating how old gars are. We believe that alligator gar can live for over 100 years if the conditions are right.
Why do gars have such a distinctive shape?
They found a body plan and stuck with it for millions of years. The torpedo-like shape works as an ambush predator, and they’ve got a decent amount of burst speed, too. They aren’t these lazy fish we’re often led to believe they are. They’re also armored with these ganoid scales. They’re made of a material very similar to tooth enamel, which is the hardest substance that we produce, so they’re very well-built.
There’s a perception that gar are such fierce predators that they can negatively impact ecosystems. Is there any truth to this?
Part of the bad reputation that gars have had is that they negatively impact gamefish populations. Research has shown that, like many other predators, gars are opportunistic feeders. They’re typically going to feed on forage fish like shad, and even invasive carp. Now, there are circumstances where they might be eating panfish. Usually, they’re going to be feeding on what’s most abundant. But research has shown that they aren’t negatively affecting game-fish populations.
You often capture and tag gar for research. Why is this important?
We’re tagging gars just like you might tag largemouth bass. Then, if you recapture them, you can see how much they have grown, how they’ve changed, or where they’ve moved. We also take tissue samples. We’ve been taking fin clips, which can tell us what a particular animal might be feeding on. We know they’re apex predators, but how do alligator gar, say, in Mississippi compare to those in Texas? By taking just a small piece of fin tissue, we’ve shown that we can learn a lot about these fish and how they might reflect ecosystem and environmental health—without killing fish to take muscle samples.
What project are you working on that you’re most excited about?
Mississippi River Flood Plain restoration is exciting. The Mississippi River has been heavily dammed and leveed. When we cut it off from its natural or historic flood plains, we cut fishes off from spawning and nursery and feeding grounds. Reconnecting or enhancing the connections between the Mississippi River and flood plains is critical. By studying the gars, we can learn more about the health of these floodplain ecosystems and the success of restoration efforts. We’ve shown that this kind of research works in some of these sites in Louisiana and Mississippi. We’re hoping to take it on the road and apply this research in different places.
We’re also working with partners on coastal habitat restoration and using brood stock alligator gar to restore the species in places with declining populations or where they’re locally extinct.
What do you think of the term “rough fish?”
It does a disservice to native species. We all generally know what a “rough fish” is, but it has this unnecessary negative connotation compared to sport or game fish. It really casts certain native species like gars and suckers and bowfin in a negative light. If we could move away from that terminology, it would be beneficial. We could replace it by just saying “native species.” Even “non-game fish” is better.
If you could wave your hand and change the way that alligator gar are managed by wildlife agencies, what would you do?
I think Texas is doing a great job and other states are getting there. I would say there would be size limits and a closed season during spawning. You’re talking about fish that might take 50 or 60 years to reach 6 or 7 feet long. We need to protect the large spawners, and we need to protect them when they’re spawning if we want them to be there when our kids or grandkids go fishing. I’m not looking toward ending the harvest of alligator gars, but I do think that they do need to be managed carefully. I’ve eaten alligator gar and think it’s delicious.
Really? What’s it taste like?
In Louisiana, a lot of people eat gar. When I was living up in Michigan, eating gar would’ve gotten me some very bizarre looks. You can go to multiple fish markets down here in Louisiana and get alligator gar filets, which are kind of like back straps. I’ve had it fried and in a sauce piquant. It’s a flavorful white meat. It’s kind of somewhere between lobster and chicken. It’s not like tilapia or your panfish or anything like that, but I would say it is tasty.
Now, the flip side of that is eating the big gars, you’re looking at potential mercury and other toxins. I think that’s more reason to let the big gars stay in the water. Let them reproduce.
I read that you have multiple tanks of small gars in your house. Is that right?
Since grad school, I had kept gars in aquariums. Now, I’m married with two toddlers, so I don’t have nearly the time or the space to keep all the tanks. I do still have one tank in the house, and it has all seven species of gars. My kids are great at gar ID!
Ultimately, what do you hope people will think about gar going forward?
That these are unique fishes—gars in general, but especially alligator gars. They can teach us a lot about ecosystem health, and there’s even new research that is looking to establish gars as biomedical research organisms, particularly the spotted gar, but alligator gar as well. They have value to us in both their role in ecosystems and even when we’re thinking about developmental biology. Their bad reputation is undeserved, but I do appreciate that these ideas are changing slowly but surely. That’s part of the reason why I work to conserve them.