Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Love Ancient Fish EPISODE I: Bowfin

Image by Solomon David, curator of the fabulous Also, possessor of the most Torah-iffic name I've ever heard.
This week I visited my hometown of Sulphur, Louisiana, and couldn't help but notice the word "choupique". Choupique Bayou, some kind of Cajun sausage hut involving the word "choupique"...the word seemed familiar but wouldn't quite come to me, so I looked it up when I got home. "Choupique" is the name used for the bowfin, Amia calva, in South Louisiana.
Like so many other fish, the choupique goes by a wide variety of confusing names, such as "mudfish", "speckled cat" (probably because they have barbels; they are NOT catfish), "grindle", "cypress trout" (they are not trout), "lawyer" and "dogfish". Personally, I think "dogfish" is the worst of these because "dogfish" conjures images of small sharks, not these guys. I suppose it could be worse, there's the good ol' mahi-mahi/dolphin name issue that alarmed me as a very young fish dork.

In addition to the fish, "Choupique" is also the name of a Louisiana band depicted here in what appears to be gay Klan attire, bless their hearts (no seriously, that's just a joke guys, no allegations of racism here)
The bowfin, like its excellent brethren the gar, bichir, coelacanth and others, is considered a living fossil. Bowfin flourished during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods of the Mesozoic, making them contemporaries of superstar dinosaurs Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus. This is not a recent fish. Like several other types of "living fossil" (e.g. Nautilidae, the nautiluses, who are spiffy and deserve their own entry), the bowfin is the only remaining member of its family (Amiidae).
PRO-TIP: Here's a handy tour of events through geologic time, courtesy the San Diego Natural History Museum. The good folks at the Geological Society of America have even made up a colorful PDF chart of geologic time that you can print up and tape to your wall/give to your loved ones so you never have to look too far to see when the PLIENSBACHIAN AGE was.
So why are they called bowfin?
Bowfin are distinguished by their very long dorsal fin.

The dorsal fin is the fin(s) running along the length of the fish's back. Most fish have fairly short dorsal fin(s); the bowfin is not most fish.
What kind of sweet prehistoric features do they have?
Bowfin have a couple: in particular, the gular plate and their kind-of lung. The gular plate is a large bony plate located in their mouths. Gular plates are not unique to bowfins, they're also found in Elopidae (ladyfishes, skip-jacks), Megalopidae (tarpon) and Albulidae (bonefishes); other types of gular plate are found in living fossil-mates the coelacanth and the bichir. For photographic details, here's a drawing from The Dictionary of Ichthyology. Other owners of gular plates include the bowfin's evil twin, the snakehead. Notice that snakeheads have long anal and dorsal fins.
I hate to give any species bad press, so I need to say that snakeheads are not evil in their appropriate context. However, as an invasive species they can wreak havoc on ecosystems.
Regarding their lung, while bowfin do not have lungs in the same manner as lungfish, their swim bladder can function as a primitive lung and they may take oxygen by breathing air. This behavior is also exhibited by those perennial aquarium darlings, the betta and the gourami, though they possess a different type of lung-like organ (called the labyrinth organ; will be visited later). Being able to obtain oxygen through a method other than gills is very helpful when you live in low-oxygen environments, which are incidentally the habitats in which both bowfins and bettas are found.
Also, here is a picture of a bowfin skull:

Image by Udo M. Savalli
As you can see, they feature the armored head that I love so dearly in old-school fish.
Do I want to a catch a bowfin?
Maybe. Bowfin are renowned for their enthusiastic fighting and penchant for biting, much like my cat. With these fish, the fight continues after they've been removed from the water, so come prepared with leather gloves. To quote The Bowfin Anglers' Group, possibly the people on the Internet who are most excited by bowfin, "Bowfin fight like cat[fish]s or carp on speed" and "The bowfin has sharp teeth that will make hamburger of a careless thumb".
Do I want to eat a bowfin?
Depends who you ask. The good folks down at the Bowfin Anglers' Group seem to think so and provide recipes for your perusal. Folks at other message boards give opinions ranging from "tastes like fish jello", "the cats wouldn't eat it" to "if you cook it quickly after it's killed it's okay". In my neck of the woods people definitely eat bowfin, but my people are also from the swamp and eat pretty much anything, so take that with a pinch of file.
Can I keep one in an aquarium?
Not with other fish if you're not using them as feeders. Bowfin pretty much eat anything, including each other. If you're feeling saucy, I hear they're fans of crawfish.
Anything else I should know?
Male bowfin are very protective of their young, to the point that they will display aggressive behavior (i.e. take a chunk out of you) if you happen to be wandering around their habitat and they feel you have come too close their fry.
References/Recommended Reading:
Brent Courchene on bowfin
FishBase's entry on bowfin
The Bowfin Anglers' Group
Alan Richmond of the University of Massachusetts on bowfin


  1. "choupique" Thank you for providing an acceptable spelling for this fish. My deceased mother, the 11th of 12 children, was born in a small settlement, near Sulphur, by the same name. She'd refer to this fish as the reason why her small world was called this. Unfortunately, because of my youth, I didn't search down the spelling-- and now she's gone.
    Now, can you or anyone please provide a spelling for the slang word which means when something is crooked/ off balance: like a crooked tablecloth; or curtains at a window, etc.
    It sounds like

    Thanks so much!

  2. I did a little bit of research for you and got a response from Jim Léger, a native speaker of Cajun French:

    It sounds like to me that the man's mother was saying "it has that tattered look." "Haillonné, (hi-on-nay) or slanged "haillon-shonerie, haillon-shoné" (spelled as it might sound to an English speaking person. Something that is tattered or has that appearance due to being askew, looks like a "tattered cloth." Something that is "crooked" is "croche." Or "à la pente." If you can give me more hints maybe we can hit the nail on the head.

    I would recommending contacting him directly for follow-up or if you have more questions. His Cajun French blog can be found here: ; it's also where I found his contact info. Best of luck and delighted to be of service!