The American paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) is a species of basal ray-finned fish closely related to sturgeons in the order Acipenseriformes. Fossil records of paddlefish date back over 300 million years, nearly 50 million years before dinosaurs first appeared. American paddlefish are smooth-skinned freshwater fish commonly called paddlefish, but are also referred to as Mississippi paddlefish, spoon-billed cats, or spoonbills. They are one of only two extant species in the paddlefish family, Polyodontidae. The other is the critically endangered Chinese paddlefish (Psephurus gladius) endemic to the Yangtze River basin in China. American paddlefish are often referred to as primitive fish, or relict species because they retain some morphological characteristics of their early ancestors, including a skeleton that is almost entirely cartilaginous, a paddle-shaped rostrum (snout) that extends nearly one-third their body length, and a heterocercal tail or caudal fin, much like that of sharks. American paddlefish are a highly derived fish because they have evolved with adaptations such as filter feeding. Their rostrum and cranium are covered with tens of thousands of sensory receptors for locating swarms of zooplankton, which is their primary food source. American paddlefish are native to the Mississippi River basin and once moved freely under the relatively natural, unaltered conditions that existed prior to the early 1900s. They commonly inhabited large, free-flowing rivers, braided channels, backwaters, and oxbow lakes throughout the Mississippi River drainage basin, and adjacent Gulf drainages.
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