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The Leviathan of Mingo NWR
Midwest Region, May 26, 2009
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Tracy Hill and Adam McDaniel show off a diamond back water snake caught on the Mingo River.
Tracy Hill and Adam McDaniel show off a diamond back water snake caught on the Mingo River. - Photo Credit: n/a
Adam McDaniel poses with a bowfin while Tracy Hill retrieves the rest of our net.
Adam McDaniel poses with a bowfin while Tracy Hill retrieves the rest of our net. - Photo Credit: n/a
Joe McMullen and Adam McDaniel backpack electrofishing on the Mingo River.
Joe McMullen and Adam McDaniel backpack electrofishing on the Mingo River. - Photo Credit: n/a

Project leader Tracy Hill shutters, and hits the deck of our boat with haste as the last 10 feet of a gill net produces a large diamond back water snake.  After a great deal of debate over the lethality of the species, the crew mustered the courage to remove and release the snake, without incident.  This was the first of many angry and uncooperative residents of the Mingo swamp, which included cottonmouths, snapping turtles, and an army of mosquitoes.

This year, staff from Columbia National Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office (NFWCO) participated in an annual, post-alligator gar reintroduction, fish community survey at Mingo NWR.  The crew consisted of project leader Tracy Hill, and technicians Joe McMullen and Adam McDaniel.  With help from the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Open River and Wetland Field Station biologists successfully sampled fish communities in many of the area’s streams, ditches, and marsh lands.  This was a unique opportunity for the staff, and a world away from the Missouri River issues that are dealt with on a daily basis.  Many species of fish that our office rarely deals with were documented including bowfin, chain pickerel, starhead topminnow, and taillight shiners.

In the spring of 2007, alligator gar officially became a native Missouri resident again, and resumed its rightful place as Missouri’s largest fish.  Alligator gar were once common in the rivers and swamp lands of southeast Missouri, but few reports of these giant fish have surfaced in the past 70 years. Occasionally fish are caught in Missouri, most often on the lower portions of the Mississippi River, and its tributaries, likely migrants from populations in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.  The fish stocked at Mingo NWR were raised at the Tishomingo National Fish Hatchery in Oklahoma where the species still thrives.  Loss of habitat is the primary cause of the alligator gar’s decline; however, suitable habitat still abounds in the swamps of Mingo.

Alligator gar can reach lengths of 12 feet long and weigh as much as 300 pounds.  Adults live on a diet consisting largely of fish, but not necessarily picky eaters, and have been known to eat ducks, shore birds, other alligator gar, and are noted scavengers as well.  It is believed that reintroducing this large predatory fish will help to balance biological processes and increase the overall health of the swamp ecosystem.  A parallel may be found in the reintroduction of wolves at Yellowstone National Park.

For the last four summers fish have been sampled on the refuge in an array of habitats using multiple collection methods.   These studies were conducted in order to gain perspective on the entire fish community present on the refuge.  This information can now be used as a basis of comparison, when future studies beg the question, “what affect are Alligator Gar having on the ecosystem?”  To even better understand the fish’s habits, graduate students from SE Missouri State University have fitted these fish with telemetry devices in order to track their movements.  This also allows biologists to more easily recapture the gar so that information about their diets, growth, and habitat preferences can be obtained.

These events mark the beginning of what will hopefully be a more productive and healthy swamp, and offers the promise of greater fishing opportunities on the refuge in the future.  Alligator gar reintroduction meets the aquatic species conservation and public use goals of the Fisheries Program Vision for the Future.  With perseverance and hard work this species has a chance at a come back in the swamps of SE Missouri.

Joe McMullen, Adam McDaniel, and Tracy Hill


Contact Info: Joseph McMullen, 573-234-2132 Ext. 119, Joseph_McMullen@fws.gov



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