Shovelnose Sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus platorynchus)

Fish of the Mississippi River

Introduction

The shovelnose sturgeon is a fish of river currents, depending on sandy or gravel beds as a safe place to lay eggs. Small crevices and hollows protect eggs and newly hatched fish. That’s why a dam that slows river currents may be detrimental to these fish. Slow water drops silt, which buries those safe niches under layers of fine mud.

Shovelnose populations are generally stable or slightly decreasing in the Mississippi River although the species is still commonly taken by commercial fishermen. The state of Minnesota took the shovelnose sturgeon off its list of species of greatest conservation need in 2015 when increased population surveys provided better data about its abundance and distribution.

The smallest North American member of the sturgeon family, the shovelnose sturgeon hugs the river bottom to feed, feeling for insects and invertebrates with its sensitive heavily fringed barbels (sometimes called whiskers). It sucks up food, gravel, and other bottom matter alike with a vacuum-like mouth on the bottom of its spade-shaped head. Young shovelnose sturgeon have a long-whip-like filament on the upper lobe of their tails. Older fish lack the filament, which breaks off with age.

Fascinating Facts

  • The skin of the shovelnose sturgeon feels rough, like a cat’s tongue.
  • Sturgeon anglers need to be cautious handling young sturgeon as their scutes (bony scales) can be razor sharp.
  • Hickorynut and the endangered yellow sandshell mussel depend on shovelnose sturgeon to host their larval stages, known as glochidia. Shovelnose are the only known host for hickory nut mussels.

Identification

Key ID Features: Shovelnose sturgeon have a coppery, dark tan or light brown back; long flat snout, shovel-shaped head; and bony plates (called scutes) instead of scales. An average snovelnose is 24 inches long. The caudal peduncle (narrowing of the body just before the tail fin) is extremely narrow. Its barbels are fringed, unlike the smooth barbels of lake sturgeon.
Present in Park: Yes
Habitat: Open, flowing river channels over bottoms of sand or gravel
MN Status: Present. Removed from Minnesota Species in Greatest Conservation Need List in 2015

For Further Reading

Last updated: April 13, 2018

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