Common Family: The Sturgeon Family
Common Name: Shovelnose Sturgeon
Scientific Name: Scaphirhynchus platorynchus
The shovelnose sturgeon is the smallest of the ancient sturgeon species in North America, rarely exceeding 5 pounds in weight, with a maximum size of 33 inches and 10 pounds. The shovelnose sturgeon has a flattened and shovel-shaped snout and is distinguished by pale, sharp bony plates (known as scutes) instead of scales. It also has a sucker-type mouth and four large barbels (whisker-like sensors) in line and evenly spaced in front of the mouth. The base of the tail of the shovelnose sturgeon is flattened in cross section and completely covered with armor-like plates. The upper lobe of the tail is elongate and shark-like, except that it has a long filamentous thread attached in younger individuals. The shovelnose sturgeon is generally darker in color from tan to gray or yellowish green dorsally transitioning to a much lighter tone as you move towards its stomach.
Shovelnose sturgeon can tolerate high turbidities and are usually found in the strong currents and deep channels of large rivers of the Mississippi River and Ohio River basin over sand and gravel substrates. They are apparently intolerant of the quiet waters of lakes and reservoirs, and dams restrict their movements. Shovelnose sturgeon frequent waters that are 6.5 to 23 feet deep. Shovelnose sturgeon do not have a restricted home range and may travel long distances. Shovelnose sturgeon are opportunistic feeders, taking any aquatic insects, mussels, worms or crustaceans available. The shovelnose uses its strongly fringed barbels to sense the river bottom and to identify prey, and then capture it with its vacuum cleaner-like mouth.
The shovelnose sturgeon was likely eliminated from West Virginia waters because of poor water quality and a changing riverscape habitat (channelization, increased removal from floodplain interaction, increased depth and sedimentation), though some transient individuals could still occur. From 2002 to 2009, adult individuals from Indiana were transplanted to the Little Kanawha and Kanawha rivers in an attempt to reintroduce a breeding population. Fry and fingerlings also were stocked in 2006, 2007 and 2009 into those same rivers. In other regions where the shovelnose sturgeon is still present, such as the Missouri and lower Mississippi rivers, they are known to hybridize with pallid sturgeon.
Sturgeons can live for a long time, and many sturgeon species may not reach sexual maturity until they are more than 30 years old. However, shovelnose sturgeon don’t live as long, typically about 13 years. Spawning normally occurs from April through early July, with mature shovelnose sturgeon migrating upriver to spawn over rocky substrates in flowing water between 66° and 70° F. Well adapted as a bottom dwelling fish, the shovelnose sturgeon changes this habit by swimming near the surface during spawning.
Male shovelnose sturgeon mature at age five about 20 inches long, and females at age seven at approximately 25 inches. Weights at maturity range between 2 and 3 pounds. Females do not spawn every year. Though not legal for harvest in West Virginia, the eggs of the shovelnose sturgeon are marketed as “hackleback” caviar.
Three sturgeon species in North America, including the shovelnose sturgeon, all have a wide, shovel-like snout, an elongated body and fully armored tail.