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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.

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 . 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, which is made into caviar - a luxury good 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 actinopterygian 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.

Physical characteristics

Closeup of head
Along with other members of the Chondrostei and the Acipenseriformes order, sturgeon are primarily cartilaginous, 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 Seamarker reportedly attain over 5.5 m and 2000 kg while for kaluga (H. dauricus) in the Amur Rivermarker similar lengths and over 1000 kg weights have been reported. Beluga sturgeon of similar size have long been reported from the Columbia River and its tributary the Snake River, both of which can be at least 100 feet (30 meters) deep in reservoirs behind dams. 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 Mexicomarker to Newfoundlandmarker, including the Great Lakesmarker and the St. Lawrencemarker, Missourimarker and Mississippimarker rivers, as well as along the West coast in major rivers from Californiamarker to British Columbiamarker. They occur along the European Atlanticmarker coast, including the Mediterraneanmarker basin, in the rivers that flow into the Blackmarker, Azovmarker and Caspianmarker seas (Danube, Dnepr, Volga and Don), the north-flowing rivers of Russia that feed the Arctic Oceanmarker (Ob, Yeniseimarker, Lenamarker, Kolyma), in the rivers of Central Asia (Amu Daryamarker and Syr Daryamarker) and Lake Baikalmarker. In the Pacific Ocean, they are found in the Amur Rivermarker along the Russian-Chinesemarker border, on Sakhalinmarker island, and in the Yangtzemarker 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 Uruguaymarker, 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) 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 Russia, sturgeon fisheries are of immense value. Early in summer the fish migrate into the rivers or towards the shores of freshwater lakes in large shoals for breeding purposes. The ova are very small, and so numerous that one female has been calculated to produce about three million in one season. The ova of some species have been observed to hatch within very few days after exclusion. In sturgeons that have attained maturity their growth appears to be much slower, although continuing for many years. Frederick the Great placed a number of them in the Garder See Lake in Pomerania about 1780; some of these were found to be still alive in 1866. Professor von Baer also states, as the result of direct observations made in Russia, that the Hausen (Acipenser huso) attains an age of 100 years, but can live over 210 years.
In countries like Englandmarker, where few sturgeons are caught, sturgeon is included as a royal fish in an act of King Edward II, although it probably only rarely graces the royal table of the present period, or even that of the lord mayor of London, who can claim all sturgeons caught in the Thames above London Bridgemarker. Where sturgeons are caught in large quantities, as on the rivers of southern Russia and on the great lakes of North America, their flesh is dried, smoked or salted. The ovaries, which are of large size, are prepared for caviar, for this purpose they are beaten with switches, and then pressed through sieves, leaving the membranous and fibrous tissues in the sieve, whilst the eggs are collected in a tub. The quantity of salt added to them before they are finally packed varies with the season, scarcely any being used at the beginning of winter. Finally, one of the best sorts of isinglass is manufactured from the airbladder. After it has been carefully removed from the body, it is washed in hot water, and cut open in its whole length, to separate the inner membrane, which has a soft consistency, and contains 70% of gluten.

Sturgeon (and, therefore also the caviar trade) are under severe threat from overfishing, poaching and water pollution.

The Jewish law of kashrut, which only permits one to eat fish with scales and fins, forbids sturgeon, as they have ganoid scales instead of the permitted ctenoid and cycloid scales. All Orthodox groups do not allow sturgeon but the conservative CLJS does allow it.


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.

A short-nosed sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum)

See also


  1. B. G. Gardiner (1984) Sturgeons as living fossils. Pp. 148–152 in N. Eldredge and S.M. Stanley, eds. Living fossils. Springer-Verlag, New York.
  2. J. Krieger and P.A. Fuerst. (2002) Evidence for a Slowed Rate of Molecular Evolution in the Order Acipenseriformes Molecular Biology and Evolution 19:891-897.
  3. W. E. Bemis, E. K. Findeis, and L. Grande. (1997). An overview of Acipenseriformes. Environmental Biology of Fishes 48:25–71.
  4. F. Fontana, J. Tagliavini, L. Congiu (2001) Sturgeon genetics and cytogenetics: recent advancements and perspectives. Genetica 111: 359–373
  5. Sergei F. Zolotukhin and Nina F. Kaplanova. (2007) Injuries of Salmon in the Amur River and its Estuary as an Index of the Adult Fish Mortality in the Period of Sea Migrations. NPAFC Technical Report No. 4. [1]
  6. Frimodt, C., (1995). Multilingual illustrated guide to the world's commercial coldwater fish. Fishing News Books, Osney Mead, Oxford, England. 215 p.
  7. Krykhtin, M.L. and V.G. Svirskii (1997). Endemic sturgeons of the Amur River: kaluga, Huso dauricus, and Amur sturgeon, Acipenser schrenckii. Environ. Biol. Fish. 48(1/4):231-239.
  8. Berg, L.S. (1962). Freshwater fishes of the U.S.S.R. and adjacent countries. volume 1, 4th edition. Israel Program for Scientific Translations Ltd, Jerusalem. (Russian version published 1948).
  9. LA. Burtzev (1999) The History of Global Sturgeon Aquaculture. Journal of Applied Ichthyology 15 (4-5), 325–325. doi:10.1111/j.1439-0426.1999.tb00336.x
  10. S. Duke, P. Anders, G. Ennis, R. Hallock, J. Hammond, S. Ireland, J. Laufle, R. Lauzier, L. Lockhard, B. Marotz, V.L. Paragamian, R. Westerhof (1999) Recovery plan for Kootenai River white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus), Journal of Applied Ichthyology 15 (4-5), 157–163.
  11. G.I. Ruban, 1999. The Siberian Sturgeon Acipenser baerii Brandt: Structure and Ecology of the Species, Moscow, GEOS. 235 pp (in Russian).
  12. Clover, Charles. 2004. The End of the Line: How overfishing is changing the world and what we eat. Ebury Press, London. ISBN 0-09-189780-7

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