The Bowfin


I was standing by the aquariums at the Inland Seas Education Center waiting to do my weekly aquarium maintenance, but not wanting to begin until the morning’s class had left for the boat and their great adventure out on the lake. I was watching the Bowfin swim lazily about the tank when the students from one of the many schools in the area came into the building.

Children bring their own atmosphere with them, don’t they? It’s amazing how the atmosphere in a room can change from a dull, silent slumber to a bustling and somewhat chaotic place as they try to see all of the displays in the short time that they have before leaving for their science expedition aboard the schooner Inland Seas.

I remained right where I was by the aquariums, not wanting to interfere with this new constant flow of traffic about the room. The students would come by and look into the aquariums at the fish and some would ask me their names. Fish are really good at attracting the attention of children. That’s probably because they are moving in a different medium and are always on display. However, the tank that they stared at the most was tank number 3. They would look at it very closely, walking around it looking in every corner of the tank for a while before finally asking me “is anything in here?” Of course there wasn’t any fish in the tank since I had just drained and cleaned the tank the week before.


I was showing a few of the students the Bowfin when one of the boys walked by, pointed, and said “Dogfish”. “That’s a Dogfish”. I called after him “Bowfin” but he was already gone. I explained to those still standing there that the Bowfin is known by several other names like Dogfish, Mudfish, Cypress trout, and many others but none of these names, I believe, give it the respect it deserves. For the Bowfin is really an ancient fish.


The Bowfin (Amia calva) is the last remaining species in a family of fishes (Amiidae) that dates back to the age of the dinosaurs and if you look at its very bony skeleton and long needle like teeth, you would definitely see that it looks prehistoric. Bowfins are a very primitive fish and they are true predators. The average size is 12 to 24 inches long but they have been known to reach up to 30 inches. This fish is definitely at the top of its food-chain.

Bowfin photo head skeleton

This is a very stout fish with a long body and a rounded tail with an “eye spot” just in front of the tail fin. It has a single dorsal fin that runs three-quarters the length of its body and a terminal mouth and a head that resembles that of a trout. It is quite commonly found in deep waters associated with weed beds where it spends most of its time hunting for food which consists of other fish, crustaceans, frogs, and almost anything else.

The male fish will build a nest by removing vegetation in the sand and gravel bottom in shallow vegetated areas and will guard the nest until the young reach about 4 inches long. More than one female may contribute eggs to the nest. When the eggs hatch the young are tadpole like and have an adhesive like organ on the tip of their snout that attaches them to the nest.

This fish was designed for survival. Its gills have extra reinforcement so they do not collapse like most fish when removed from the water. It is also one of the air-breathing fish which has a long lung like device and modified bladder that allows them to gulp air at the surface during drought conditions. In periods of low water, it can bury itself in the mud and has been known to live up to 24 hours out of the water.


Our little bowfin at the Education Center is only about 6 inches long and looks somewhat docile swimming in the tank. He is a little ragged about the fins these days but otherwise in good shape. Recently, while I was cleaning the tank next to him, I was watching him (and I think he was watching me too) and I saw him rise to the top of the tank, take a gulp and return to his position near the bottom of the tank. I assumed that he just grabbed a piece of food off the surface, but after a few moments he opened his mouth real wide and a huge bubble of air came out of his mouth and floated to the surface.

He was looking at me out of the corner of his eye as if to say “See what I can do?”


References: MI DNR Fish Identification – Bowfin University of MI Museum of Zoology – Animal Diversity Web Pictures: MI DNR Fish Identification Nova – Other Fish in the Sea Will Bowfin, Bowfin Anglers Stephen Luk – Fish Osteology Konrad P. Schmidt,


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