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What are Bowfin?

Updated on August 22, 2019
No, that's not an eel, burbot, or snakehead, its the bowfin. One of the few fresh water fish in North America that can exhibit a level of bioluminescence.
No, that's not an eel, burbot, or snakehead, its the bowfin. One of the few fresh water fish in North America that can exhibit a level of bioluminescence.

So What is a Bowfin?

Named for the long, undulating dorsal fins adorning their bodies, the bowfin is a relic of times past. With a skull made up of two layers, a dermatocratum and a chondrocranium these piscavores are voracious predators with genetic relatives dating back all the way to the Jurassic Period. Stalking ambush predators, in most of their native territory, bowfin are known to prey on invertebrates, mollusks, and fish during day and nighttime hours. Swimming in swamps, backwaters, rivers, and lakes the bowfin prefers slow moving water and sloughs where its prey would have a false sense of security.

Much like gar, the bowfin are what are known as a bimodal breather, meaning they have the ability to breath both water and air. Their gills, like any other fish, allow them to exploit oxygen from the water they reside in, but a gas bladder allows the bowfin to both maintain bouyancy and breath air.

With a range extending from southern Canada, the drainage basins of the Mississippi River, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Bowfin can be found in both fresh and brackish water, even stagnant pools where other fish would fail to survive, the bowfin can thrive on an abundance of forage with little to no competition.

Unlike their male counterparts, female bowfin can grow up to sizes up to ten pounds, though they lack the breathtaking coloring that the males exhibit.
Unlike their male counterparts, female bowfin can grow up to sizes up to ten pounds, though they lack the breathtaking coloring that the males exhibit.

There is a large difference in appearance between the males and females. In just size alone, females can reach 65-70cm in length, with a large male reaching up to 50-65 centimeters. Young males have a black eyespot on the base of their tail commonly encircled by an yellowish-orange border while, if present at all, the eyespot on a female will be black or mottled grey.

Habitat

Stagnant backwaters and brackish swamps make ideal homes for the ambush predators. Though not a schooling fish, they seek out prime habitat for their primary hunting method, where one resides, others are sure to be nearby.
Stagnant backwaters and brackish swamps make ideal homes for the ambush predators. Though not a schooling fish, they seek out prime habitat for their primary hunting method, where one resides, others are sure to be nearby.

A Living Fossil

Often called a primitive fish or living fossil, bowfin have retained characteristics common to their ancestors. An externally rounded caudal fin, spiral valve vestiges, gas bladder, and a bony gular plate located under their head on the outside of the lower jaw between both sides of the lower jaw bone. Long, sharp teeth and two protruding almost tube-like nostrils are other distinguishing features that the bowfin are known for.

Bowfin have rather large, single layered, cycloid scales unlike most primitive fishes who have ganoid scales.
Bowfin have rather large, single layered, cycloid scales unlike most primitive fishes who have ganoid scales.

Not a Snakehead!

Unlike the non-native snakeheads, bowfin have been here longer than us. A few distinguishing features to help you identify your catch are:

  • There are some subspecies of snakeheads that lack pelvic fins.
  • Bowfin lack scales on their head, instead having a smooth layer of skin akin to a catfish.
  • Bony plates under the jaws are present only in the native species bowfin.
  • The bowfin's pelvic fins are roughly present mid-body, whereas with all snakehead species the fins are near the head.

Depending on local and state regulatory agencies, what to do when you find a snakehead varies from state to state, and sometimes, park to park. What you should do should you suspect that what you have is the invasive species is at all possible to keep the fish alive and to call wildlife officers. If this is not possible, multiple photographs and as much information as possible on the catch can help your local Division of Natural Resources to determine what exactly it was that you have caught.

Comments

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    • profile image

      Caiden 

      2 weeks ago

      thanks bro now I know what should find them at

    • HhaosThorngage profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Richmond 

      18 months ago from Hubbard

      @Peggy Woods they truly are an amazing species that many anglers even in their native range have never seen. I know the first one that I caught was a shocker.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      18 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for educating us about the bowfin. I was unfamiliar with it. It is amazing that it is such an ancient species.

    • HhaosThorngage profile imageAUTHOR

      Jeremy Richmond 

      18 months ago from Hubbard

      @Larry Slawson, they really are a unique and exciting fish to learn about. Thank you for commenting!

    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      18 months ago from North Carolina

      Very cool. Always heard of the Bowfin, but never knew much about them. Thank you for sharing!

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