Dr. Solomon Davis is an undisputed racing expert. He is a professor at Nicholls State University, where he is based GarLab, a unique research team specifically focused on understanding the conservation biology of gar species. Among many other achievements, his team recently created a non-lethal way to conduct race samples.
Gar are considered an “ancient fish”. They have existed for about 157 million years. Today there are seven species of native races in North American waters. The sheer size of some alligator races, which are the largest of the racing species, has attracted a lot of media attention recently. However, historically, gamefish have received relatively little scientific research compared to many species of popular game fish such as bass or trout. Solomon is working hard to change that – and to make sure people understand the ecological importance of racing. We recently sat down with him to discuss his interest in racing, the term “tough fish,” the future of race management and more.
How did you get interested in racing?
I’ve always been interested in nature and the outdoors, and especially underrated and unusual animals like reptiles and amphibians. Like many children, I was interested in dinosaurs. But what really got me interested in the contest was Ranger Rick’s nature magazine. When I was 11, I was given an old back problem and turned it into the middle. It was this giant alligator gar that had very dinosaur-like features, including large jaws with many teeth. It really fascinated me.
Did you go fishing when you were a child?
Yes. I wasn’t necessarily an avid fisherman, but I enjoyed fishing. Occasionally we would get bluegills, other fish, even brook trout, but basically I would put a worm on a hook and cast out there and see what I could get. I wouldn’t necessarily target a particular species. Even then, I was interested in the variety of fish.
What was it about the alligator that made them so special to you?
It was the particular species that introduced me to gars as a child. This fish looked like it was from the time of the dinosaurs – which it is. Gars have a very prehistoric and ancient origin and have not changed much since then. If you were to look at the fossil races of millions and millions of years ago, they look very similar to the modern fences we see today. That prehistoric sight has always fascinated me, and the alligator races, of course, are just gigantic.
Working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, we have had the opportunity to work with some large alligator fences this past year. It’s like sliding on a dinosaur. When we’re tagging those fish and they breathe out of that gas bladder, it reminds me of that Triceratops scene in the original Jurassic Park where there’s one on its side and it’s breathing up and down.
They are also very resilient. They breathe air and have armored scales and poisonous eggs. From a conservation perspective, they’ve had this tenuous relationship with humans throughout our coexistence, where some people like them, some people hate them, and some people are trying to bring them back from the brink of extinction. I think in some ways they are weak, although they are growing in popularity in recent years.
How old can alligator gar really get?
The oldest they’ve aged was about 95, but what we’re finding is that we’ve underestimated how old the races are. We believe that alligator gar can live for over 100 years if the conditions are right.
Why do races have such a special shape?
They found a body plan and stuck with it for millions of years. The torpedo-like shape works as an ambush predator, and they also have a good burst speed. They are not these lazy fish that we are often led to believe. They are also armored with these ganoid scales. They are made from a material very similar to tooth enamel, which is the hardest substance we make, so they are very well built.
There is a perception that the races are such ferocious predators that they can negatively affect ecosystems. Is there any truth to this?
Part of the bad reputation that racing has had is that it negatively affects game fish populations. Research has shown that, like many other predators, raccoons are opportunistic feeders. They will usually feed on forage fish like shad, and even invasive carp. Now, there are circumstances where they may be eating panfish. Usually, they will feed on whatever is most abundant. But research has shown that they are not adversely affecting game fish populations.
You often capture and tag the race for research. Why is this important?
We are tagging gars like you might tag largemouth bass. Then, if you capture them again, you can see how much they’ve grown, how they’ve changed, or where they’ve moved. We also take tissue samples. We have obtained leg clips which can tell us what a particular animal may have been fed. We know they’re apex predators, but how do gar alligators in, say, Mississippi compare to those in Texas? By taking just a small piece of thread tissue, we’ve shown that we can learn a lot about these fish and how they can reflect the health of the ecosystem and environment – without killing the fish to get muscle samples.
What project are you working on that you are most excited about?
Mississippi River floodplain restoration is exciting. The Mississippi River has been heavily dammed and dammed. When we cut it off from its natural or historic floodplains, we cut the fish off from spawning and nursery and feeding areas. Reconnecting or enhancing connections between the Mississippi River and floodplains is critical. By studying gars, we can learn more about the health of these floodplain ecosystems and the success of restoration efforts. We have shown that this type of research works in some of these places in Louisiana and Mississippi. We hope to take it on the road and implement this research in different countries.
We are also working with partners on coastal habitat restoration and using alligator gar to restore the species to places with declining populations or where they are locally extinct.
What do you think of the term “rough fish?”
It does a disservice to native species. We all generally know what a “tough fish” is, but it has this unnecessary negative connotation compared to sport fish or game. It really casts some native species like gars, pintail and bow in a negative light. If we could get away from this terminology, it would be helpful. We can replace it by simply saying “native species”. Even “fish without game” is better.
If you could wave your hand and change the way alligator racing is managed by wildlife agencies, what would you do?
I think Texas is doing a great job and other states are getting there. I would say there would be size limits and a closed season during spawning. You’re talking about fish that can take 50 or 60 years to reach six or seven feet in length. We need to protect the big eggs and we need to protect them when they are spawning if we want them to be there when our children or grandchildren go fishing. I’m not calling for an end to alligator harvesting, but I do think they should be managed carefully. I have eaten alligator gar and I think it is delicious.
Really? What did it taste like?
In Louisiana, many people eat gar. When I lived in Michigan, eating mouthwash would get me some very strange looks. You can go to many fish markets down here in Louisiana and get alligator gar fillets, which are like back straps. I’ve had it fried and in spicy sauce. It is a tasty white meat. It’s somewhere between lobster and chicken. It’s not like your tilapia or pan fish or anything like that, but I’d say it’s delicious.
Now, the flip side of that is eating large grains, you’re looking at potential mercury and other toxins. I think that’s one more reason to let the big races stay in the water. Let them reproduce.
I read that you have a lot of small fenced tanks at your house. Is this okay?
Since high school, I’ve been competing in aquariums. Now, I’m married with two kids, so I don’t have the time or space to keep all the tanks. I still have a tank at home, and it has all seven race types. My kids are great at gar ID!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
These are unique fish – races in general, but alligator races in particular. They can teach us a lot about ecosystem health, and there’s even new research that’s looking to establish gars as biomedical research organisms, especially spotted otters, but also alligator otters. They are of value to us both in their role in ecosystems and when we think about developmental biology. Their bad reputation is undeserved, but I appreciate that these ideas are slowly but surely changing. This is part of the reason why I work to preserve them.