Banded Sculpin

Banded sculpin side view photo with black background
Scientific Name
Cottus carolinae
Cottidae (sculpins) in the order Scorpaeniformes (mail-cheeked fishes)

The banded sculpin is the most widely distributed Missouri sculpin. It occurs in all the major Ozark stream systems and north of the Missouri River in Lincoln County. Note the complete lateral line; wide, distinct dark bar at the base of the tail; and dorsal fins that are not connected.

Sculpins, as a group, have very large mouths. The head is broad and flattened, tapering abruptly into the rather slender body. Scales are absent, but small prickles are often present on the head and body. The dorsal fin is divided into two distinct parts; the forward part contains spines, but these are soft and flexible, superficially resembling soft rays. The pectoral fins are large and fan-shaped. The pelvic fins each contain 1 stiff spine and 3 or 4 soft rays. The rear margin of the tail fin is rounded.

The banded sculpin can be distinguished from other Missouri sculpins by the following:

  • The lateral line is complete, ending near the base of the tail fin.
  • The dark vertical bar crossing the body at the base of the tail fin is broad and distinct.

Other characters to note:

  • It lacks strong mottling but has well-defined dark bars across the back and sides.
  • The two sections of the dorsal fin are usually not connected.

Like our other sculpins, the overall color is variable, tending to match substrate color where found. The banded sculpin has back and sides a rather uniform reddish brown, with 4 or 5 dark saddle bars. The hindmost 3 bars are prominent, extending obliquely (at a slant) forward onto the sides. The belly is yellowish white, sprinkled with a faint to obvious dusting of dark specks. The spinous (front) dorsal fin is splotched with dark brown. The pelvic fins are white. All the other fins are usually faintly banded with dark brown lines.

Similar species: Five species of sculpins occur in Missouri.

  • The Ozark sculpin (C. hypselurus), knobfin sculpin (C. immaculatus), and mottled sculpin (C. bairdii) also occur in clear, rocky, spring-fed Ozark streams. Where they occur, they may have higher population densities than the banded sculpin. They have varied distributions in different Ozark stream systems, and they can be distinguished from each other through differences in coloration and markings, fin ray counts, and other fairly subtle differences, including molecular (DNA) traits. They all differ from the banded sculpin in having an incomplete lateral line (ending beneath the base of the soft dorsal) and in having the dark vertical bar at the base of the tail fin narrow and indistinct.
  • Until 2013, the grotto sculpin (C. specus) was considered an unusual form of banded sculpin, but DNA evidence showed it was different enough to be considered a separate species. The grotto sculpin lives only in caves in Perry County, Missouri. It has specific adaptations for cave life: smaller eyes, a paler body, and so on. It is a federal endangered species.

Adult length: commonly 2½–5 inches; maximum about 7¼ inches or more.

Where To Find
image of Banded Sculpin Distribution Map

The most widely distributed Missouri sculpin. Occurs in all the major Ozark stream systems and north into Lincoln County.

Sculpins, as a group, are bottom-dwelling fishes that lack a swim bladder. Their flattened bodies and enlarged pectoral fins are adaptations for maintaining a position in stream currents. They are able to modify their color to match their background and are difficult to see as they lie on the stream bottom.

The banded sculpin is well-camouflaged by its color pattern of light and dark areas as it lies among rocks of the stream bottom. It lives under rocks during the day, emerging to feed mostly at night.

The habitat requirements of the banded sculpin are much like those of the other Missouri sculpins, and they are often found together. The banded sculpin, however, seems tolerant of higher temperatures than the Ozark, knobfin, and mottled sculpins, and it is generally the most abundant sculpin in the larger and warmer Ozark streams.

Unlike the Ozark, knobfin, and mottled sculpins, the banded sculpin occurs rather commonly in caves, often at great distances from any likely point of entry. This may point to their close relationship to the grotto sculpin, a pale, cave-dwelling species in Perry County, Missouri, that was long considered a unique population of banded sculpin.

Sculpins have very large mouths and are able to swallow prey items nearly as large as themselves. The banded sculpin feeds mostly at night on crayfish, immature stages of aquatic insects, small fish (including other sculpins), and snails. They often capture their prey by ambush.

The banded sculpin is the most widely distributed Missouri sculpin. Although it is a common species, it generally does not attain the high population densities of Ozark, knobfin, and mottled sculpins.

Life Cycle

Sculpins spend days under rocks and emerge to feed mostly at night. Reproductive behavior is apparently not very different from that of our other sculpins. Mating and nesting occur in spring, when water temperatures reach into the 70s. Males excavate cavities beneath rocks and logs. Females turn upside down to deposit egg clusters on the ceiling of the cavity. Males then guard the clusters of eggs until they hatch, which is usually about a month later. The maximum life span of this species is probably 6 years or more.

Sculpins have been accused of eating trout eggs, a charge that is largely without foundation.

Occasionally, sculpins are caught accidentally by anglers on worms, and they are sometimes used as bait.

Sculpins make interesting aquarium pets because of their bizarre appearance and ability to change color to match their background. However, they require live foods. Also, they prefer lower temperatures than most aquarium fish: the maximum they can tolerate is about 70 F. Nongame fishes may be collected for aquarium purposes by the holder of a fishing permit, using techniques and in numbers specified for bait collecting in the Wildlife Code of Missouri.

At least one type of popular saltwater aquarium fish is fairly closely related to sculpins: the lionfish (Pterois antennata), which is famous for its ornately extended, venomous spiny dorsal fins. Sculpins and lionfish are in the same order, the Scorpaeniformes (scorpion fish). If you look past the bizarre fins and notice their head and body shapes, you’ll see they are very similar.

Just as animals on dry land occupy their various habitats and ecological roles, so do animals under the water. This fish bottom-dwelling fish, therefore, specializes in eating smaller creatures that also creep around on the bottoms of streams.

Rather strange-looking freshwater fishes, sculpins belong to a family and an order whose members are mostly marine — and indeed, the banded sculpin looks quite a bit like its cousins, which sometimes end up in saltwater aquariums.

Ozark spring branches are busy places in springtime, as many species of fishes are breeding and many types of aquatic insects are becoming active. The impact that insect-eating fish have on populations of various types of flies must be considerable: they consume the immature stages of the insects before they have a chance to reproduce.

Animals that live in caves are components of very unusual ecosystems. In caves, there is no light to power the growth of plants, so nutrients must come into the cave from outside. When fishes such as the banded sculpin move in and out of caves, they bring organic materials into the cave in the form of their body wastes and their own bodies.

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About Fishes in Missouri
Missouri has more than 200 kinds of fish, more than are found in most neighboring states. Fishes live in water, breathe with gills, and have fins instead of legs. Most are covered with scales. Most fish in Missouri “look” like fish and could never be confused with anything else. True, lampreys and eels have snakelike bodies — but they also have fins and smooth, slimy skin, which snakes do not.