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Long, slender-bodied fish with heavy scales, elongated dorsal fin, and round tail. Head lacks scales and is protected by hard, armor-like, bony plates. Head has barbel-like protrusions at each nostril. Mouth is filled with several sharp teeth used for gripping prey. Dark olive to brown back with a mottled pattern along the sides, fading to a cream or offwhite belly. Juveniles have a large eye spot rimmed in bright yellow and orange near the caudal fin. The spot becomes less visible in adult males and disappears on adult females. Can grow close to 3 feet and up to 20 pounds but are generally less than 2 feet. 

Range and Habitat

Native to the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. Live in freshwater bodies like lowland rivers, lakes, swamps, and backwater areas. Prefer clear water with lots of vegetation but are also found in muddier systems. Spend most the day in deeper water, moving to shallower areas at night and to spawn. 


Spawn in late spring in shallow waters with vegetation. Males build the nests and more than one female may use the same nest during the season. After the eggs are laid and fertilized, males stay and guard the eggs and the fry once they hatch. Fry live in schools until they reach about 4 inches in length; their diet consists mostly of fish. Adults are opportunistic, ambush predators, eating a wide variety of prey such as fish, frogs, small snakes, and baby birds. Like gar, bowfin have a modified swim bladder that acts as a lung; this adaptation allows them to gulp air and live in stagnant backwaters with low oxygen levels. 

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