Date of this Version
American Currents Vol. 38, No. 4
Cajuns call it “choupique” (say “shoe-pick”), from its Choctaw name. Elsewhere, it’s the dogfish, blackfish, grindle, cottonfish, or cypress trout. Its official common name is “Bowfin” (Amia calva)1. But to most anglers, this is the “mudfish,” a strange, unusual, and much-maligned fish, most everywhere considered a useless trash fish. One look and the words relict, prehistoric, primitive, and living fossil come to mind. Indeed, the bowfin is the last of its line, the sole-surviving species of a very ancient group of fishes. Its predecessors flourished in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods during the Mesozoic (= Middle-Animal) Era, a great expanse of geological time. Yes, as commonly noted, the mudfish is a holdover from the age of the dinosaurs, 60-150 million years ago. Other equally ancient holdovers among freshwater fishes are its very distant cousins, the gars, and the sturgeons and Paddlefish, all equally antique, all unique and unusual, all northern hemisphere fishes. All three watched Tyrannosaurus come and go. They withstood the tropical Mesozoic, then dramatic global cooling when the Atlantic Ocean began to open 80 million years ago, and again when ice held much of Europe, Asia and North America in the chilling grip of the Pleistocene Ice Age for 2.6 million years. All three antique fishes witnessed the evolution of grasses, flowering plants, and woody trees, as earlier forests of fern trees and giant horsetail rushes disappeared from northern continents. Bowfins, gars, and sturgeons outlasted the sabretooth tiger, the wooly mammoth, Nethanderthal man, and will most likely outlast the human species – if we do not drive them to extinction first (we have already done in or pushed to the brink five of the world’s 26 sturgeon species, and one paddlefish2). But, back to the dinosaur comparison. In proportion to its size, the mudfish is armed with a wicked set of long, sharp, curved teeth on nearly every bone in its mouth. If scaled up to dino dimensions, its teeth would closely resemble, and rival the size of those of many meat-eaters dinosaurs. And – the mudfish also sports the thickest, densest skull bones of any fish – armored like a dinosaur as well. It is an elegantly designed predator and survivor indeed.