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Wild Thing: Prehistoric Paddlers

Paddlefish, the oldest animal species in North America, return to Caddo.

By Eva Frederick

During the Carboniferous Period, much of North America was underwater, and the parts that remained above the ocean were lush with swampy forest.

A lot has changed in the past 300 million years — coastlines receded, dinosaurs emerged and disappeared, and human civilization covered the earth — but one ancient fish species has stuck around to watch it all happen.

With a snout like a long, flat spatula and an often-open mouth, the American paddlefish is a distinctive-looking resident of Texas rivers and reservoirs. Its namesake “paddle” is about one-third of the length of the fish’s entire body and is covered in tiny electroreceptors that help the fish find the best areas of water with snackable microscopic organisms.

These chubby, cartilaginous fish dine on tiny plankton and have no teeth at all. To feed, they swim around with their mouths gaping wide, taking in large volumes of water and filtering it out through their gills, which are equipped with comb-like rakes to catch the plankton. This method of open-mouthed feeding lends them a permanently surprised look.

fish

Paddlefish can grow up to 7 feet long and weigh over 200 pounds, although most are smaller (10-15 pounds). They are unique to the United States (the only other paddlefish in the world is the Chinese paddlefish, which has not been seen since 2003 and may be extinct); in some areas, they are thriving and are a popular game fish.

In Texas, however, paddlefish are considered a protected species, and it is against the law to catch, kill or harm them in any way. The few remaining fish can be found in small numbers, mostly in the Sabine and Trinity rivers.

There’s one critical obstacle to their survival. Although dams do a good job of controlling rushing floodwaters and providing calm reservoirs, these barriers make it difficult for paddlefish to reproduce because they require pulses of water to spawn.

Beginning in 2014, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists (along with other conservation organizations) began a project to reintroduce paddlefish to the cypress-lined waters of Caddo Lake.

First, they worked out a way to release water from the adjacent dam at Lake O’ the Pines in a way that mimicked natural conditions with higher and lower flow periods throughout the year. Then, biologists outfitted four dozen young paddlefish with radio trackers and set them free in Caddo Lake. Later that year, they released 2,000 more.

TPWD fisheries biologist Timothy Bister recalls holding the young fish, their smooth, catfish-like skin slick beneath his fingers, and then watching, along with a crowd of other interested citizens, as the fish splashed away and disappeared into the murky water.
“We have done several of these paddlefish releases, and to see the public show up and the folks getting involved in the project, that is pretty exciting to see,” he says.

So far, the paddlefish in Caddo Lake appear to be doing well.

“I am not in a place right now to say that they will ever come off the [threatened species] list, but it is encouraging to see paddlefish surviving,” Bister says. “We are pleasantly surprised.”

Common Name
American paddlefish

Scientific Name
Polyodon spathula

Habitat
Large rivers, reservoirs

Diet
Microscopic animals also known as plankton

Did you know?
Like sharks, paddlefish have cartilage skeletons. Unlike sharks, paddlefish have no teeth.

 

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