Looking at a gar is a bit like looking into the distant past. Largely unchanged over the past 100 million years, they are often called living fossils.
Gars are primarily freshwater fish found only in North America, from Montana to southern Quebec to Costa Rica. Their range used to be much more extensive, with fossils being found in Europe, Africa, South Asia, and South America.
Gars, also called garpikes, get their name from the Anglo-Saxon word for spear. They are long and tubular with an oversized, generally elongated snout, although the alligator gar has a short, wide, shovel-shaped bill. Their skin is covered in a coat of hard, diamond-shaped scales that create a protective armor.
They are ferocious-looking and can be huge, with some species reaching almost 10 feet (3 meters) in length and weighing up to 300 pounds (136 kilograms). Voracious and efficient predators, gars have large mouths packed with sharp, pointed teeth. They are generally sluggish fish but are capable of impressive bursts of speed. They usually drift motionless near the surface waiting for smaller fish to swim by. When prey approaches, they whip their heads around and snare their victim, often sideways, then turn it to swallow headfirst.
One of the reasons they’ve survived as long as they have is their ability to thrive in even the most inhospitable waters. They have a swim bladder that they can fill by gulping air, which they use to supplement their gill breathing in low-oxygen environments.
There are seven known species of gar, and all are quite abundant in their ranges. In the Southeastern United States, where the alligator gar lives, they are prized by sport fishermen for the fierce fight they give when hooked. Gar meat is edible, but is extremely bony and rarely consumed. Gar eggs are highly toxic to humans.