Though it sounds like a Great Lakes legend, the Lake Sturgeon is a real, if seldom seen, native of Illinois waters. The largest fish species in the Great Lakes, they can grow to nine feet long and 275 pounds, although four feet and 50 pounds is more typical.
Lake Sturgeons have lived here since the last glaciers gouged out and filled the Great Lakes, about 10,000 years ago. But they first appeared in the fossil record 136 million years ago, when dinosaurs ruled, and they have changed little since then. Lake Sturgeons are “primitive” inside and out, with cartilage instead of bone for a skeleton and a covering of bony plates instead of scales. Sensing food with their whisker-like barbels, they suck small prey off the bottom with their grasping, toothless mouths. Ancient as the species is, individuals can be old in their own right, living 75 or more years.
They can be found in the Great Lakes as well as in large rivers and lakes from southeastern and central Canada through the Mississippi River basin. They also are found at Shedd Aquarium, including in the “At Home on the Great Lakes” exhibit touch pool. Modern times have not been kind to Lake Sturgeons. They are endangered in Illinois and 18 other states. Overfishing, pollution, and habitat loss have nearly wiped them out. Through cooperative conservation efforts in the Great Lakes, these ancient giants are slowly recovering.