FWS Focus



Ancestors of the American paddlefish lived in modern day North America about 125 million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period, when some dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. 

Paddlefish inhabit slow-moving, large, deep, freshwater rivers and reservoirs. They only eat plankton, which are microscopic plants and animals. They eat by simply swimming around with their mouth open.

Scientific Name

Polyodon spathula
Common Name
American paddlefish
FWS Category

Location in Taxonomic Tree

Identification Numbers



Characteristic category

Physical Characteristics

Size & Shape

Paddlefish can grow up to 7 feet long. 

Paddlefish can be distinguished from all other North American freshwater fishes by the presence of a large, paddle-shaped rostrum (up to 1/3 total body length) on the snout anterior to the mouth. 


Paddlefish can weigh almost 200 pounds.

Color & Pattern

The overall color of a paddlefish is bluish gray to blackish on the back, grading to white on its belly.

Characteristic category

Life Cycle

Life Span

Paddlefish can also live for a long time. Some reports say some specimens have lived for 50 years or longer. 


When paddlefish are ready to reproduce, they can migrate hundreds of miles before spawning.

Life Cycle

Spawning occurs in late spring at times of high water; eggs are deposited on silt-free gravel bars where, during regular water levels, they would be exposed to air or are covered by very shallow water. The eggs hatch and the larval fish are swept downstream to deeper pools where they grow to adulthood. 



Mississippi River basin from southwestern New York to central Montana and south to Louisiana; Gulf Slope drainages from Mobile Bay, Alabama, to Galveston Bay, Texas. Formerly in the Lake Erie drainage in Ohio (and possibly lakes Huron and Michigan). Extirpated from Great Lakes basin (Page and Burr 2011).

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