|Bigmouth buffalo male|
The bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus) is a fish native to North America. It is the largest North American species in the Catostomidae or "sucker" family, and is one of the longest-lived freshwater fishes, capable of living beyond 110 years. It is commonly called the gourd head, redmouth buffalo, buffalofish, bernard buffalo, roundhead, or brown buffalo,. Despite the superficial similarity, the bigmouth buffalo is not a carp, nor is any other catostomid.
The bigmouth buffalo is typically a dull brownish olive color with dusky fins. Like other catostomids it has a long dorsal fin, but unlike others it has a terminal (forward-facing) mouth. It is the largest of the buffalo fish and reaches a length of more than 4 ft (1.2 m) and 65 lb (29 kg) in weight. Bigmouth buffalo are an ecological asset to North American fresh waters. They form the native counterpart to the bighead and silver carp, and they compete with the common carp. These invasive species are outcompeting the native bigmouth buffalo.
It is native to the Red River of the North, Manitoba, Canada, and North Dakota, United States, to the Ohio River and south in the Mississippi River system to Texas and Alabama in the United States. It lives in sluggish areas of large rivers and shallow lakes and streams. Bigmouth buffalo populations are known as declining in the northern extent of their range, including parts of Minnesota, North Dakota, and Canada. A recent study documented that several populations in Northwestern Minnesota are comprised mainly (85-90%) of individuals more than 80 years old, suggesting recruitment failure since the 1930s. The long lifespan of Bigmouth Buffalo, and evidence indicating recruitment failure spanning decades with only brief periods of recruitment success, suggests this species goes through "boom" and "bust" periods of recruitment in certain areas of their range. In order for this life history strategy to be successful, bigmouth buffalo likely would require time (e.g. decades) to reach those successful "boom" periods of reproduction. Thus current management of this species is in urgent need of reevaluation, at least in the northern extent of their range.
The bigmouth buffalo migrates upstream to spawn in the spring, usually April to June, where it lays its eggs on plants to which they adhere. Bigmouth buffalo, unlike its close relatives the black and smallmouth buffalos, is a filter-feeder, using its very fine gill rakers to strain crustacean zooplankton from the water. It sometimes feeds near the bottom, using short up-and down movements to swirl the water and thus be able to filter from the water the plants and animals that hover near the bottom or rest lightly on it. More than one male will assist in spawning by moving the female to the top of the water to help mix eggs and milt.
The fish is vulnerable in shallow water and is often captured by spearing and bow and arrow. It is commercially caught on trotlines, setlines, hoop and trammel nets, and seines. Though it has numerous small bones, its good flavor makes it one of the most valuable of the traditionally, non-game freshwater fish.
The bigmouth buffalo is naturally found throughout the United States from the Great Lakes south to Alabama and Louisiana drainages and west to Texas and Montana. They generally live in shallow swells, large slow-moving rivers or swamps, since they seem to be adept at dealing with these low-oxygen habitats. This species of buffalo will also occasionally spawn in rock and gravel (open substrata) in the spring.
The bigmouth buffalo is a popular foodfish throughout the United States, and has been introduced into a few southwestern states. Populations in the Northern extent of their range (Canada, Minnesota, and North Dakota) have been documented as declining since the 1970s. They prefer shallow, slow-moving water like flooded vegetation. Bigmouth buffalo is also susceptible to anchor parasites which can lead to secondary infections which can be harmful in poor water conditions.
The bigmouth's native distribution is confined to the countries of Canada and the United States of America. In Canada, they inhabit the Milk River which flows through Alberta, and the Qu'Appelle River which flows through Saskatchewan and Manitoba into Lake Winnipeg. Beginning in the northern United States, they are native to Iowa, South Dakota and, Minnesota, more southern states include eastern Texas and Oklahoma. The major drainages where they are found in include Lake Erie, the Ohio River, and Mississippi River drainages. From these drainages, they are found into Arkansas, the Gulf region of Louisiana, and down the Tennessee River into Alabama. The introduction of bigmouth has been largely done for commercial purposes. Regions of reintroductions include some reservoirs along the Missouri River drainage of North Dakota and Montana. Regions of introduction include some reservoirs in Arizona, and within California, they have also been introduced to the aqueduct system of Los Angeles.
The bigmouth buffalo has a rather unique, pelagic ecology of shallow-water systems. The larval bigmouths are benthic and pelagic feeders of copepods and cladocerans mostly, but also eat phytoplankton and chironomids. The juveniles and adults are mostly limnetic plankton feeders that also eat cladocera, copepods, algae, Chironomidae, ostracods, and other insect larvae and invertebrates depending on availability. The optimum habitat for spawning bigmouth buffalo is highly vegetated waters. They are a very hardy fish that can tolerate high turbidity and low oxygen levels. They can be found in waters with turbidity levels over 100 ppm. A minimum total dissolved solids is 200 ppm during the growing season. During spring and summer, 50–75% pools should be present, with backwaters, and marsh areas and 25-75% littoral area and protected embayments during summer for the habitat to be suitable. Bigmouth can be found in waters from 22.5–38.0 °C, but their preferred temperature is between 31 and 34 °C. The optimal temperatures for incubation and hatching of eggs are from 15-18 °C, but they can develop in temperatures reaching up to 26.7 °C. The bigmouth prefers slow-moving water that does not reach a velocity over 30 cm/s. Salinity can be a problem for reproduction. Spawning can occur from 1.4-2.0 ppt of salinity which eggs and yearlings not being able to survive a salinity of over 9 ppt. The minimum dissolved oxygen during the spring and summer is 5 mg/l.
At 112 years of age, the bigmouth buffalo is the oldest known freshwater teleost (a group of about 12,000 species) by nearly 40 years, shattering all previous records for this group. With a previous maximum longevity estimate for this species at 26 years, supercentenarian longevity came as a surprise and was met with skepticism. Thorough bomb radiocarbon dating was conducted on their otolith microstructure and confirmed the initial age estimates, making Bigmouth Buffalo the oldest age-validated freshwater fish in the world. The bigmouth buffalo is a spring spawner generally spawning between April and June when the water temperature is between 13 and 26 °C. The bigmouth is a broadcaster that has adhesive eggs which it lays in highly vegetated waters. Females seek highly submergent and emergent vegetation and high turbidity to keep their eggs safe and in ideal habitat for hatching. The substrate found is generally a mixture of a medium amount of rubble and gravel and a high amount of sand and silt. The water levels substantially rise before spawning and stabilize afterwards. The sexual maturity of bigmouths is variable. In southern Minnesota, Females begin to mature once they are around 10 years old, while males around 6 years old. The bigmouths are group spawners which produce 250,000 eggs/kg of adult weight; their eggs are about 1.5 mm in diameter.
The bigmouth buffalo is not currently listed as threatened or endangered in any region of its native or introduced distribution, although they were given Special Concern status in Canada in the 1980s. With several endemic populations comprised almost totally (85-90%) of individuals born before 1939 (individuals over 80 years as of 2019), bigmouth buffalo management is in urgent need of reevaluation. The fingerlings are susceptible to a parasite, Lernea cyprinacae, but most are unaffected by the time they reach a length of 30 mm. They are anchor parasites that insert themselves between scale margins and fin insertions. The real problem is a secondary infection that may arise due to these parasites, the protozooan Epistylis and bacteria Flavobacterium columnare are both attached to serious parasite infestations. The bigmouth has been seen to hybridize in the wild with smallmouth buffalo, and it is possible that some fish identified as black buffalo are indeed these hybrids. The hybridization does not seem to be negatively impacting their populations but makes it difficult to determine how many hybrids and how many black buffalo are actually in certain reservoirs and therefore difficult to manage for either species. There are currently no found specific management plans for the bigmouth buffalo either privately or governmentally funded. Bigmouth buffalo are seen as a commercial foodfish for the most part and do not seem to be in any danger of decreasing in population. They are very readily reproduced by hatcheries and if ever needed could be easily stocked.
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On June 21, 2013, Noah LaBarge (13 years old) caught the Wisconsin state record bigmouth buffalo fish. It measured 49.5 inches (126 cm) and weighed 76.8 pounds (34.8 kg). It was caught on an 8-lb-test line on the Wisconsin River at Devil's Elbow, which is on the north end of the Petenwell Flowage. It was officially recognized to be the new world record by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as both 8-lb-line class and all tackle. A Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, a man caught a record 62-pound (28 kg) bigmouth buffalo while fishing on Percy Priest Lake. The fish, caught by Jeff Wilkins in late March, was 45 inches (110 cm) in length and snagged in the Seven Points area of the lake. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said it took him 35 minutes to reel in the fish. The new record surpasses the previous mark of 52 pounds, 2 oz, previously held since April 6, 2001, by Greg Megibben. The giant fish also came from Percy Priest Lake. After the record was certified, Wilkins released the fish back into the lake. In Omaha, Nebraska, Joe Slavic caught a 64-pound (29 kg) buffalo bigmouth on June 8, 2000, in a sand pit located in Dodge County.
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