Getting to Know Your Neighbors: Our Native Fishes

Author: Anthony Terceira

As aquarists, we are extremely fortunate to be able to read about and raise so many different fishes from all over the world. The Amazon and its numerous tributaries offer tetras and catfish, the Rift Lakes include a wide variety of cichlids, and of course fish from oceans all over the world grace reef tanks. The stories about the collection and behavior of these different animals make their way into publications, and sometimes it’s almost as if the reader came along for the trip. With such diverse animals from so many countries offered in pet shops around the nation, it is little wonder that very few people think to look at native species for aquarium specimens. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side, right?

Well, here in the United States there is a great diversity of fresh- and brackish-water fish that rival those from just about any other location in the world. Since many of the exciting smaller fish that are appropriate for aquariums are not game or food fish, they go largely unrecognized and are completely unknown to many people. This only makes their plight more precarious, since they are dependent upon careful monitoring and maintenance of their unique habitat for their survival. People don’t work to conserve species they are unaware of.

Great American Fish

I would like to introduce you to a sample of this wonderful group of native fish. I will include species from the Cahaba (the longest river in Alabama), the vegetated overflow pools and backwaters of the Perdido River, and a handful of localities along the Gulf Coast, Mobile Bay, and Florida Panhandle. We will visit Tampa Bay, North Carolina, and other locations where I have had the great joy of sampling and, in some cases, collecting some of the most beautiful fish in the world to maintain and breed. We will focus on some of these fish that are ideal candidates for the home aquarium.

Let’s begin with the Tennessee Basin located in northern Alabama and look at some of the amazing darters that inhabit the fast-flowing, cool waters of the Paint Rock River system. In early spring, darters are in full breeding dress and rival any fish in terms of color and intensity. They are found in cool, fast-moving riffles (short areas of a stream where the water flows faster) that are high in dissolved oxygen.


Rainbow Darter Etheostoma caeruleum

Rainbow darters Etheostoma caeruleum are common in gravel and cobble riffles throughout the Tennessee River drainage. This species has a large distribution range throughout the Great Lakes area and Mississippi, Alabama, and the Potomac River drainage. It is one of the most widely distributed darters.

Redline Darter Etheostoma rufilineatum

Thankfully, the redline darter E. rufilineatum is an abundant species that loves clear, rocky riffles of creeks and small to medium rivers. It is widely distributed in Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

I believe I lost my breath momentarily when I first saw this species in my collecting net. In breeding colors, the male darkens and his colors intensify. Females are smaller and exhibit 10 vertical bands. The unpaired fins exhibit multiple black markings.

Blueside Darter Etheostoma jessiae

The blueside darter E. jessiae is a small, slender darter reaching approximately 3 inches in total length. Although it’s small in size, the electric-blue markings and almost black face will take your breath away and make it a true standout in an aquarium. Thankfully it is widely distributed and found scattered in the Tennessee River system and is common in the Paint Rock River system. It is also found upstream into North Carolina in the French Broad River system and into Virginia in the North Fork Holston River system.

Greenbreast Darter Etheostoma jordani

Greenbreast darters E. jordani are found in moderate to swift riffles of cobble and gravel in the Cahaba River system. For this darter, which seldom exceeds 2½ inches in total length, managing in the very swift riffles is an amazing feat. I could just about hold myself upright in the current in order to disturb the cobble and drive the fish into my dipnet.

During breeding season, the male is deep green with bright orange on the edges of the dorsal and caudal fin.


Tricolor Shiner Cyprinella trichroistia

Tricolor shiners Cyprinella trichroistia are common in the Coosa and Cahaba River systems. They also occur in southeast Tennessee and northwest Georgia. They are frequently found in small streams, rocky and sandy runs, and pools of creeks. In Alabama they occur with the greenbreast darters, preferring the shoreline areas as opposed to the central river flow.

Normally a silver-bodied fish, in breeding color the tricolor shiner takes on wonderful shades of blue and red. It also exhibits rows of head tubercles during the breeding season.

Metallic Shiner Pteronotropis metallicus

Pteronotropis and Notropis compose a large group of native fish. Most are ideal candidates for aquariums, as they are schooling fish that love larger aquariums. They have been collected in streams and larger bodies of water throughout Florida, Alabama, Virginia, and South Carolina. Most are characterized by sailfin dorsal fins and broad dark stripes along their lateral lines.

The water was crystal clear, cool, and moving rapidly in the area where I collected metallic shiners Pteronotropis metallicus. The fish were clustered in the upper level of the stream under tall flowing vegetation.

Rainbow Shiner Notropis chrosomus

The rainbow shiner Notropis chrosomus is a widely distributed shiner found in spring runs in the Cahaba and Coosa River systems. There are populations in lower Alabama and the Black Warrior River systems, as well as all of the Mobile Bay drainage area, Georgia, and southeast Tennessee. They are quite variable throughout their range.

This species is typically found in small, low-turbidity headwater streams flowing over gravelly and sandy riffles and pools.Seeing a group of these shiners in a shallow stream with sunlight striking the sides of the fish is something one will never forget.

Groups of males and females gather in creeks facing the flowing current as they prepare to lay eggs. They use the nests made of gravel constructed by fish species of the genus Nocomis (commonly called chubs). Their reddish-purple backs and neon-blue fins shine and sparkle in the sunlight. Being able to watch them in early spring was a highlight of my collecting trip and something I will not easily forget.

This species is plentiful within its range and makes an ideal aquarium fish. It has been bred by hobbyists with moderate success. Some populations hold their electric-blue coloring throughout the year, whereas other populations tend to lose some coloration after their spawning period occurring from April through June or July.

Bluenose Shiner Pteronotropis welaka

Bluenose shiners P. welaka are widely scattered and uncommon across Alabama’s coastal plain. This is one of the most spectacular species in the genus and may well be one of the most beautiful cyprinids in North America.

Its preference for quiet backwaters and pools of blackwater streams and rivers make it really difficult to catalog or collect. P. welaka is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Florida and may not be collected. In other states throughout its range, it is not listed as a Species of Special Concern.

On one trip, some of my great fish-collecting friends and I were able to gather a very small group of these fish in Alabama. The last time I was able to have these fish in my possession was some 35 years ago. Does that give you some idea of how special I think these fish are, and how lucky I consider myself to have collected and maintained them?


Diamond Killifish Adinia xenica

Although the diamond killifish Adinia xenica is widely distributed, it is rarely bred or seen in the hobby. This schooling seawater species is found from the coastal regions of southeastern Florida to the central Texas Gulf coast. This species inhabits high-salinity salt flats and marshes, and lower saline mangrove swamps.

The Mobile Bay population is one of the most colorful populations I have collected. Its dependence on salt flats and marshes makes it very vulnerable to poor water quality and loss of habitat.

Goldspotted Killifish Floridichthys carpio

Goldspotted killifish Floridichthys carpio can be found in fresh to saltwater transition zones and attendant swamps and estuaries, but it is most often found in large schools in seawater. It ranges from the southern half of the Georgia Atlantic coast, throughout coastal Florida, and west to approximately the mid-coastal regions of Louisiana.

Although reported to travel in large schools, I have only been able to collect small groups in temporary pools at a lower tide. As with most brackish open-water fishes, a seine is a necessity, as are a group of avid collectors. One successful method that works well, in those temporary pools that appear at low tide, is to have two people move the seine toward a few others who are beating the water trying to drive fish in the direction of the net.

I have found these fish to be relatively easy to maintain and reproduce. An interesting behavior is that the newly hatched fry remain very close to the bottom of their aquarium for a few days. Within a week they exhibit normal school feeding behavior.

Pygmy Killifish Leptolucania ommata

The small pygmy killifish Leptolucania ommata seldom exceeds an inch in total length and is found from the Atlantic and Gulf slope drainages from Georgia to Perdido, Alabama, along the Gulf Coast across the panhandle south to Central Florida. It prefers the surface water of swamps, sloughs, and quiet areas of creeks and small rivers.

Again its preference for surface waters and quiet creeks close to the Gulf of Mexico make it susceptible to subtle changes in the environment. It appears that the populations along the panhandle and in Alabama are more intensely colored than those found in central Florida. This population variability is very common in a great many of our native fishes.

Rainwater Killifish Lucania parva

Rainwater killies Lucania parva are found in most coastal habitats from Massachusetts and along the entire Atlantic coast, peninsular Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico to Tampico. An isolated population is known from the Yucatan peninsula. They are often found in large quantities in bays along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

This small killifish is best kept in groups in brackish water. Although they are reportedly found in large quantities, this author has only found small groups during collecting efforts. This is probably attributed to the difficultly of trying to catch such a small, quick fish with a collecting net or seine.

A naturally occurring relic population that is collected by members of the Suncoast Killifish Society inhabits a freshwater spring system in central Florida.


Banded Topminnow Fundulus cingulatus

Banded topminnows Fundulus cingulatus are found from the Satilla River drainage in Georgia to the Mobile Bay drainage in Alabama and south into Florida to the Tamiami Canal.

This is an ideal aquarium candidate, as adults will lay their eggs in floating mops or vegetation. Eggs are large, approximately 2 mm, and the fry easily consume baby brine shrimp immediately upon hatching. Population variability is high.

Golden Topminnow Fundulus chrysotus

Golden topminnows F. chrysotus are distributed from the Santee River drainage in South Carolina to the Trinity drainage in Texas and north to Kentucky and Missouri. They are very common in Florida.

The Golden Topminnow has been found in open bodies of water and occurs in swamps and backwaters of sluggish creeks and in small to medium rivers. This killifish has been collected in a variety of environments including low, hot roadside ditches along some of the major highways in the Tampa area.

A melanistic form exists and is found anywhere the normal gold form is found. The ratio of melanistic to non-melanistic seems to vary by location, but in all cases there are very few melanistic forms found compared to the normal variety.


Flagfish Jordanella floridae

Flagfish Jordanella floridae are a widely distributed native fish found throughout Florida from the peninsular north through St. Johns and the Ochlockonee River drainages. It is found in ponds, lakes, and sluggish streams. In streams or ponds that have experienced high and low water levels, it is common to collect numerous fish that are the same size. It has been suggested that eggs can withstand some drying, which is a characteristic of many other killifish.

This is one of the few natives that are commercially raised for the aquarium trade. They often appear in your local fish store. They are wonderful aquarium fish, seldom exceeding 2½ inches. They should be fed a varied diet that includes some vegetable matter.


Okefenokee Pygmy Sunfish Elassoma okefenokee

A truly diminutive species, the Okefenokee pygmy sunfish Elassoma okefenokee seldom reaches an inch in total length. They are found in the central part of peninsular Florida. This fish is common in Florida and west to the Choctawhatchee River drainage. They are found in swamps, heavily vegetated sloughs, and small sluggish streams, usually over mud. This very secretive species is widely distributed. In many areas they are collected in less than 2 inches of water close to the shoreline.

They are best kept in species-specific tanks and should be provided with adequate cover in the form of oak leaves or Java moss. Live small foods are preferred. Males often display but seldom do harm to one another.

Banded Pygmy Sunfish Elassoma zonatum

The banded pygmy sunfish E. zonatum is widely distributed in North America. It is found in the lower Roanoke River drainage in North Carolina, south to the middle parts of the St. Johns River, and the panhandle. It is also found in Texas and the lower Wabash River drainage and in Indiana and Illinois.

Throughout its range, E. zonatum frequents lentic waters such as cypress swamps, lake margins, sloughs, sluggish streams, and lowland backwaters. It prefers quiet water and thick growths of submerged vegetation. In many locations they are found living with E. okefenokee.

They are small fish that seldom exceed 1½ inches in total length. Size and coloration vary widely throughout its range. The most colorful specimens the author has collected have been found in the Cape Fear River basin. They were collected in the heavy vegetation along the edges of Rhodes Pond in Dunn, North Carolina.

Guidelines for Collecting Native Fishes

Do you want to go out and collect your own native fish? Well, there are some things you should know before grabbing a net and hopping in the car. First and foremost, be sure you understand the rules and regulations for the state in which you are collecting.

Check with Your Department of Environmental Management

Many smaller native fish are considered bait fish and may be collected with a standard fishing license. Other states have very restrictive rules regarding which fish may or may not be collected. Your local Department of Environmental Management is a starting point. The North American Native Fishes Association (NANFA) maintains a forum that can provide a great deal of information regarding state regulations or links to the appropriate authority.

Take Only What You Need

If you collect fish, do not remove more than you need, and it is generally far better to collect sub-adult fish as opposed to adults. Younger fish seem to adjust better to the aquarium environment. Do not collect fish in one river and then release them in another location, whether in the same river drainage or in a different system.

Make Sure You Want Them

Should you decide you are no longer interested in maintaining a native fish, perhaps another member of your local fish society would enjoy working with the species. If there is no one interested in the excess fish, never release them into the wild. Even if there is no one interested in the excess fish, never release them into the wild. You have a responsibility to these fish and must keep looking for a suitable way to dispose of unwanted specimens.


If you are interested in learning more about native fishes, consider joining NANFA. There are many other hobbyists and scientists who are very interested in our amazing native fishes. Membership includes publications, newsletters, and a national convention devoted to our local fish. I highly recommend you consider joining this group of avid fishkeepers.


A special thank you to Bruce Stallsmith and Joe Scanlan from Alabama, Casper Cox from Tennessee, and my friends and fellow collectors in Florida: Charlie Nunziata, Bill Shields, Brian Skidmore, Doug Dame, Doug Stuber, and others who have allowed me to join them. Their enthusiasm for collecting is infectious. Try it; you might add a few tanks of native fish to your hobby!

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