Fish and Aquatic Conservation

artwork of a Pallid sturgeon

Fish illustration by Laury Zicari, USFWS, Retired

Pallid sturgeon

My Scientific Name

Scaphirhynchus albus

By the Numbers

Pallid sturgeon can grow to more than 6 feet long and weigh over 80 pounds. Several of us have been aged at over 60 years old.

How to Identify Me

My scientifc name means spade-snouted (Scaphirhynchus) and white (albus), which are good clues. I am also called the pallid sturgeon because I am not very colorful. Visualize a greyish prehistoric fish with a shovel (or spade) shaped head, a long pointed snout, a toothless mouth that sticks out and works like a vacuum cleaner, whisker-like barbels, and a body lined with scutes. I also have a long forked heterocercal tail, the top is longer than the bottom.

Why I Matter and What's Been Happening

We are an ancient big-river fish that used to swim freely throughout the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (Figure 1). Our numbers spiraled downward during the 1900s because we were overfished for our eggs, sold as a gourmet food called caviar. Then decades of studding our rivers with dams blocked us from reaching our spawning and feeding grounds (Figure 1). Our larval fish also can’t swim; they drift with the river currents and sometimes are unable to reach feeding grounds, and most of them die.

My Status

We were listed as federally endangered in 1990. The good news is scientists have learned more about our biology which is helping them restore us and the places we live. And our national fish hatcheries are raising and stocking us back into rivers. Returning natural water flows in the river and restoring access to our spawning and feeding grounds, are keys to our survival.

did you know image
  • Pallid sturgeon haven’t changed much in 70 million years, and their ancestors go back more than 200 million years. They truly are “living dinosaurs.”
  • Those pointed armor-like structures on their sides and back are called scutes.
  • Pallid sturgeon are built for a life in muddy water. Their tiny eyes are not very efficient at finding food, but their whisker-like barbels are covered with chemoreceptors, like taste buds on our tongues, which help them find food.
  • Pallid sturgeon live a slow-paced life. They don’t mature until they are 10 (females) or 7 (males) years old, and they spawn every two or three years.
  • Pallid sturgeon grow to become top-level predators as they mature, and adults feed primarily on other fish.
  • Pallid sturgeon often make long upstream journeys looking for the perfect place to spawn and swim back downstream when they are finished.
  • Tiny just-hatched pallid sturgeon larvae will drift in the river current for 10 days or more before settling to eat and grow. They are very vulnerable during this journey that can be more than 200 miles.
  • Pallid sturgeon also are built to thrive in swift flowing water. Their flat bottom, humped back and fin position allows them to hold their ground with little effort.

a map of central region of USA, showing historic range and contemporary range of the Pallid sturgeon

Figure 1. The presence of pallid sturgeon in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers has changed over time.

More About Us image

black and white photo, two hands holding three young pallid sturgeon out of a tank at the hatchery

Thousands of hatchery-raised pallid sturgeon are stocked into the Missouri River each year. We expect some to survive for many decades and create future generations on their own. Photo credit: Sam Stukel

a hand holding adult pallid sturgeon in the river

Adult pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River above Ft. Peck Dam. Photo Credit: Christopher Guy

a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service male biologist holding adult sturgeon in the river

Adult pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River. Photo Credit: USFWS

a closeup of pallid sturgeon head

Their tiny eyes are a clue that pallid sturgeon evolved in muddy waters. Vision is not as important as other senses for finding food. Photo Credit: Sam Stukel

a closeup of pallid sturgeon body and see clear pallid sturgeon through the water

Their flexible cartilage skeleton is similar to those found in other ancient fish, like sharks, but they are not related to sharks. Many of our modern fishes have a bony skeleton. Pallid sturgeon are built to thrive in moving water. They are one of few fish that can also use their fins to pull them along the bottom in a crawling motion. Photo credit: Sam Stukel

Learn more about Pallid sturgeon!

How you can help statement: Get to know me, if you don’t already. Help make me visible to people who don’t have the chance to see me by sharing your stories about me. Get involved in efforts to help conserve my habitat and maintain my populations into the future.