FigureTales 288 – Clades – Holostei

Okay, thanks to the Random Number Generator, it looks like I’m working through the 2021 Fishmas tree again but I promise I’m not…plus, the Chondrostei was covered a very long time ago anyway! But it’s going to be another daunting one for me–another fish group that I greatly appreciate but don’t have much personal knowledge on, the Holostei, so the modern Gars and Bowfin (and a whole lot of fossil taxa…) One of those groups at least has some pretty broad representation. One seriously does not.

Holostei is a clade made up of two distinct groups, the Ginglymodi (including gars and fossil relatives) and the seemingly more advanced Halecomorphi (bowfin and relatives). They are united by features like a paired vomer and ganoid scales (although the scales differ and are more plesiomorphic in gars). Holosteans also have reduced spiracles relative to cladistian/chondrstean ray-fin fish (and sharks), and may not even be open externally. There is increased ossification of the skeleton, and the tails are still heterocercal to varying extents. As said before, most of these features appear a little more primitive in the gars/ginglymodi than the halecomorphs, but recent studies have indicate that they form a natural clade as a sister group to the teleosts within the Neopterygii (taxonomic words! I love them!)

Holostei is represented in the fossil record from at least the early Triassic, where fossils of both bowfin and gar relatives are known. Both groups were also much more widespread throughout that time, but are both now restricted to North America, mostly the warmer waters of the southeast US (and some just into parts of Canada) as well as some representatives in Cuba and Central America. The modern species are also highly derived, especially gars, which are notable for their long, pointed snouts; bowfin are more typically ‘fish-like’ with a characteristic long, sinuous dorsal fin. All are effective predators that prefer freshwater lakes, swamps, floodplains and rivers; the largest, the Alligator gar, has been recorded in brackish and even occasionally marine environments. Bowfin are also notable for their brood care, with males taking care of the fry in the nests that they’ve built–and vigorously defending their broods!

As far as less familiar and primitive fish go, gar have been relatively slow to show up as figures (not as readily as sturgeon, coelcanths, and Queensland lungfish figures, more so than bichirs). This may be due to improving attitudes toward gars, which have historically been vilified as preying on more popular sport fish, although their importance in ecosystems (and recognition as sport fish in their own right) has started to improve their reputations. This is especially true of the alligator gar, although a few other species have been made before (hope you already have them though…) Bowfin figures are…non-existent. Maybe because of that same negative opinion (as well as confusion with invasive snakeheads, or other long-bodied fish like native burbot). This puts bowfin in the same category as African and American lungfish and (almost) paddlefish, as animals that are pretty much not available–except as models created for the FaunaFiguresFishes line!

Holosteans also have a long, somewhat better understood fossil history, and this means that they are at least familiar through many palaeoart depictions. That does not, however, mean that they are familiar as figures; one, the prehistoric lepisosteiform Lepidotes did show up as an accessory for a special museum-release Spinosaurus but that set was expensive; I was lucky to get one from a set broken in transit at some point! Still, there are some really unusual ones that are well-known from well understood fossil sites and ages–might be nice to see some as accessories with our larger Mesozoic and Cenozoic figures. Plus, I live in an area where fossil gar and bowfin have been found, so it would be great to see those represented (since the living ones don’t live here anymore!)

My experience with gars has been limited–even in pet shops, it took a while to learn that the ‘gars’ were really freshwater needlefish. I did eventually get to keep a couple in an indoor pond (with bichirs of course) and found them a lot of fun, but eventually had to find them a new home (I moved around too much). Bowfin proved more elusive; I had seen very young ones for sale in pet shops a couple times (now they’re illegal) but the first time I saw a live adult was at the public Florida aquarium in Tampa–worth the wait, it was awesome! Definitely not a fish I would try to keep (it was enormous)!

It might be clear now, Holostean figures have been kind of more available in the last twenty years, but there’s still a lot opportunity. Given that both living families are present in Florida, it seems surprising that Safari Ltd hasn’t made any attempt to include them in a toob or other set, but there’s always hope! I do know that Replica Toy Fish was supposed to make others but didn’t…and their reinvented series Toy Fish Factory was supposed to make all kinds of gars and bowfin and…it looks like that company is dead too. I’m pleased to have as many as I do (I never would have thought I’d have this many as it is) and I would encourage everyone who can to try and track some down. Most are of course discontinued (or were custom/short run) but a few, like the Colorata and Favorite (and, yes, the Oenux copy versions that I don’t have) are still readily available.

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