Color is important to fish. It’s used for camouflage, mate selection and defense. While easily seen in tropical aquarium fish, our native fishes also have special colors.
In camouflage, the color of the fish imitates or blends with its surroundings. Most fish use countershading. A counter-shaded fish has a light-colored underside and darker topside. Counter-shaded fish blend into their surroundings from wherever they’re viewed. The light underside blends with the bright water surface when the fish is viewed from below. The dark backside blends with the stream or pond bottom when the fish is viewed from above. Catfish are counter-shaded.
Color is also used to attract mates. The redbelly dace and the bleeding shiner are ordinarily nondescript minnows, but spectacular color change takes place in the males during breeding season. Bright red markings appear on the undersides of the dace and in the fins of the bleeding shiner. Another small fish is the orange-throat darter. Its color intensifies with alternating blue-green bars and brick-red blotches on the sides and bright orange beneath the throat and undersides. The longear sunfish is one of Missouri’s showiest.
Fish are also able to change their colorations based on mood. A threatening coloration or pattern can be used to ward off others from their territory.
For most fish species spring and summer are the seasons when breeding coloration is at its peak.
Learn more about Missouri’s fish with the MDC’s Field Guide.