photo by Michelle Minor, TheDigiPix.com
Sturgeon is the common name used for some 26 species of fish in the family Acipenseridae, including the genera Acipenser, Huso, Scaphirhynchus and Pseudoscaphirhynchus. The term includes over 20 species commonly referred to as sturgeon and several closely related species that have distinct common names, notably sterlet, kaluga and beluga. Collectively, the family is also known as the True Sturgeons. Sturgeon is sometimes used more exclusively to refer to the species in the two best-known genera; Acipenser and Huso. The family Acipenseridae belongs to the order Acipenseriformes. The family Polyodontidae (paddlefishes) is also a member of the order Acipenseriformes.
One of the oldest families of bony fish in existence, they are native to subtropical, temperate and sub-Arctic rivers, lakes and coastlines of Eurasia and North America. They are distinctive for their elongated bodies, lack of scales, and occasional great size: Sturgeons ranging from 7-12 feet (2-3½ m) in length are common, and some species grow up to 18 feet (5.5 m). Most sturgeons are anadromous bottom-feeders, spawning upstream and feeding in river deltas and estuaries. While some are entirely freshwater, very few venture into the open ocean beyond near coastal areas.
Several species of sturgeons are harvested for their roe (caviar) - a luxury food which makes some sturgeons pound for pound the most valuable of all harvested fish. Because they are slow-growing and mature very late in life, they are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and to other threats, including pollution and habitat fragmentation. Most species of sturgeons are currently considered either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.
Sturgeon and related paddlefish first appear in the fossil record approximately 200 million years ago, making them among the most ancient of ray-finned fishes. In that time they have undergone remarkably little morphological change, indicating that their evolution has been exceptionally slow and earning them informal status as living fossils. This is explained in part by the long inter-generation time, tolerance for wide ranges of temperature and salinity, lack of predators due to size, and the abundance of prey items in the benthic environment.
Despite the existence of a fossil record, it has been difficult to fully classify the sturgeon species or unambiguously determine their phylogeny. This is in part due to the high individual and ontogenic variation, including geographical clines in certain features, such as rostrum shape, number of scutes and body length. A further confounding factor is the peculiar ability of sturgeons to produce reproductively viable hybrids, even between species assigned to different genera. The wide range of the Acipenserids and their endangered status have made collection of systematic materials difficult. These factors have led researchers in the past to identify over 40 additional species that were rejected by later workers. It is still unclear whether the species in the Asipenser and Huso genera are monophyletic (descended from one ancestor) or paraphyletic (descended from many ancestors)- though it is clear that the morphologically motivated division between these two genera is not supported by the genetic evidence. There is an ongoing effort to resolve the taxonomic confusion using a continuing synthesis of systematic data and molecular techniques.
Along with other members of the Chondrostei and the Acipenseriformes order, sturgeon are primarily cartilagenous, lack a vertebral centrum, and are covered with bony plates called scutes rather than scales. They also have four barbels - unique tactile organs that precede their toothless mouth and are dragged along often murky river bottoms. Sturgeon are distinctly and immediately recognizable for their elongated bodies, flattened rostra, distinctive scutes and barbels, and elongated upper tail lobes.
They are primarily benthic feeders. With their projecting wedgeshaped snout they stir up the soft bottom, and use the barbels to detect shells, crustaceans and small fish, on which they feed. Having no teeth, they are unable to seize prey, though larger specimens can swallow very large prey items, including whole salmon and even baby seals.
Sturgeon have been referred to as both the Leviathans and Methuselahs of freshwater fish. They are among the largest fish: some beluga (Huso huso) in the Caspian Sea reportedly attain over 5.5 m and 2000 kg while for kaluga (H. dauricus) in the Amur River similar lengths and over 1000 kg weights have been reported. They are also probably the longest-lived of the fishes, some living well over 100 years and attaining sexual maturity at 20 years or more. The combination of slow growth and reproductive rates and the extremely high value placed on mature egg-bearing females make sturgeon particularly vulnerable to overfishing.
Sturgeons are polyploid; some species have 4, 8, or 16 sets of chromosomes.
Range and habitat
Sturgeon range from subtropical to subarctic waters in North America and Eurasia. In North America, they range along the Atlantic coast from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland, including the Great Lakes and the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, as well as along the West coast in major rivers from California to British Columbia. They occur along the European Atlantic coast, including the Mediterranean basin, in the rivers that flow into the Black, Azov and Caspian seas (Danube, Dnepr, Volga and Don), the north-flowing rivers of Russia that feed the Arctic Ocean (Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Kolyma), in the rivers of Central Asia (Amu Darya and Syr Darya) and Lake Baikal. In the Pacific Ocean, they are found in the Amur River along the Russian-Chinese border, on Sakhalin island, and in the Yangtze and other rivers in northeast China.
Throughout this extensive range, almost all species are highly threatened or vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of habitat destruction, overfishing and pollution.
No species are known to naturally occur south of the equator, though attempts at sturgeon aquaculture are being made in Uruguay, South Africa and other places.
Most species are at least partially anadromous, spawning in fresh water and feeding in nutrient rich brackish waters of estuaries or undergoing significant migrations along coastlines. However, some species have evolved purely freshwater existences, such as the lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) and the Baikal sturgeon (A. baerii baicalensis), or have been forced into them by anthropogenic or natural impoundment of their native rivers, as in the case of some subpopulations of white sturgeon (A. transmontanus) in the Columbia River and Siberian sturgeon (A. baerii) in the Ob basin.
In currently accepted taxonomy, the family Acipenseridae is subdivided into two subfamilies, Acipenserinae, including the genera Acipenser and Huso, and Scaphirhynchinae, including the genera Scaphirhynchus and Pseudosaphirhynchus.
Kingdom: Animalia (animals)
Phylum: Chordata (chordates)
Subphylum: Vertebrata (Vertebrates)
Superclass: Osteichthyes (bony fishes)
Class: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes)
Subclass: Chondrostei (paddlefishes, sturgeons)
Order: Acipenseriformes (paddlefishes, spoonfishes, sturgeons)
Family: Acipenseridae (sturgeons)
Species: Acipenser baerii
Species: Acipenser brevirostrum
Species: Acipenser dabryanus
Species: Acipenser fulvenscens
Species: Acipenser gueldenstaedtii
Species: Acipenser medirostris
Species: Acipenser mikadoi
Species: Acipenser naccarii
Species: Acipenser nudiventris
Species: Acipenser oxyrinchus desotoi
Species: Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus
Species: Acipenser persicus
Species: Acipenser ruthenus
Species: Acipenser schrenckii
Species: Acipenser sinensis
Species: Acipenser stellatus
Species: Acipenser sturio
Species: Acipenser transmontanus
Species: Huso dauricus
Species: Huso huso
Species: Pseudoscaphirhynchus fedtschenkoi
Species: Pseudoscaphirhynchus hermanni
Species: Pseudoscaphirhynchus kaufmanni
Species: Scaphirhynchus albus
Species: Scaphirhynchus platorynchus
Species: Scaphirhynchus suttkusi
Family: Polyodontidae (Paddlefishes)
Species: Polyodon spathula
Species: Psephurus gladius
- Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) x Beluga (Huso huso) = (Bester)
- Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) x Siberian (Acipenser baerii)
- Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) x Diamond (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii)
The most common sturgeon hybrids are Sterlet (Acipenser ruthenus) x Beluga (Huso huso), known as a Bester and Diamond (Acipenser gueldenstaedtii) x Siberian (Acipenser baerii). There is also Italian x Diamond. Hybrids are hardier than their parents.