Darters have been described as the hummingbirds of the fish world: colorful, small, and quick. Missouri has about 44 different types of darters. They are most diverse in the fast, clear, rocky streams of the Ozarks.
Like other Missouri members of the perch family (including the larger walleye, sauger, and yellow perch), darters are slender, fairly cylindrical fish with rough-edged (ctenoid) scales. The fins have spines. The dorsal fin is divided into 2 separate parts, with 6 or more stiff spines in the forward part and fewer than 23 rays in the second part. One or 2 spines are present at the front of the anal fin; the second spine, if present, is never more than half again as long as the first spine. The pelvic fins are attached far forward on the body, nearly beneath the pectoral fins, and each pelvic fin has 1 spine and 5 soft rays. There are about 44 species of darters recorded for Missouri. Some are widespread and occur in a variety of aquatic habitats, while others are restricted to certain stream systems — some of those are rare and endangered.
Darters are not well-known to most people. Anglers sometimes capture them while seining for bait and think they are young walleyes or saugers. Here are good ways to tell darters from young walleye and sauger:
- Walleye and sauger have large, prominent canine teeth on the jaws and roof of the mouth, while darters have teeth that are small and inconspicuous.
- The pectoral fins of most darters are large and fan-shaped, while those of walleye and sauger are of a size and shape more typical of fish in general.
- Many species of darters do not exceed a length of 3 inches; the largest species, the logperch, rarely exceeds 7 inches. Walleye and sauger reach larger sizes.
Missouri’s darters are in the genera Ammocrypta (our 2 sand darters), Crystallaria (the crystal darter), Etheostoma (about 29 species), and Percina (about 12 species of roughbelly darters, including the logperches). The numbers are approximate because researchers using DNA data have been discovering new species.
Here are the darter species known from Missouri:
- Western sand darter, Ammocrypta clara
- Scaly sand darter, A. vivax
- Crystal darter, Crystallaria asprella
- Mud darter, Etheostoma asprigene
- Autumn darter, E. autumnale
- Greenside darter, E. blennioides
- Brook darter, E. burri
- Rainbow darter, E. caeruleum
- Bluntnose darter, E. chlorosoma
- Arkansas darter, E. cragini
- Meramec saddled darter, E. erythrozonum
- Arkansas saddled darter, E. euzonum
- Barred fantail darter, E. flabellare
- Swamp darter, E. fusiforme
- Slough darter, E. gracile
- Harlequin darter, E. histrio
- Yoke darter, E. juliae
- Least darter, E. microperca
- Sunburst darter, E. mihileze
- Niangua darter, E. nianguae
- Johnny darter, E. nigrum
- Goldstripe darter, E. parvipinne
- Cypress darter, E. proeliare
- Stippled darter, E. punctulatum
- Orangethroat darter, E. spectabile
- Speckled darter, E. stigmaeum
- Highland darter, E. teddyroosevelt
- Missouri saddled darter, E. tetrazonum
- Current darter, E. uniporum
- Redfin darter, E. whipplei
- Banded darter, E. zonale
- Goldline darter, Percina aurolineata
- Logperch, P. caprodes
- Channel darter, P. copelandi
- Bluestripe darter, P. cymatotaenia
- Ozark gilt darter, P. evides
- Ozark logperch, P. fulvitaenia
- Blackside darter, P. maculata
- Longnose darter, P. nasuta
- Slenderhead darter, P. phoxocephala
- Dusky darter, P. sciera
- River darter, P. shumardi
- Stargazing darter, P. uranidea
- Saddleback darter, P. vigil
Similar species: The following groups of fishes share some characteristics of the perches: sculpins, temperate or sea basses (such as white and striped bass, white perch, and so on), sunfishes (including smallmouth bass, crappie, and so on), and freshwater drums. Paying attention to the characters mentioned above will help separate darters and other perches from the other families.
Adult length varies by species. Most grow no larger than about 3 inches. Our largest darter, the logperch, rarely exceeds 7 inches. Our smallest darter, the least darter, has a maximum length of just over 1¾ inches.
Most parts of Missouri have one or more species of darters, but none are present in most streams in the northwestern prairie section of the state. Some darters have a very restricted distribution; at least three species occur nowhere else in the world except for Missouri.
Habitat and Conservation
Darters are adapted for life in the swift-flowing sections of clear, rocky streams. To keep them from being swept downstream, the gas-filled swim bladder found in most fishes is absent or much reduced in darters. They sink immediately to the bottom when they stop swimming, and the press of the current against their enlarged pectoral fins tends to hold them in place.
Darters remain much of the time beneath or between rocks and are afforded some measure of protection from the direct action of the current.
When moving from place to place, darters proceed by a series of short, quick dashes, and it is this characteristic form of locomotion that has earned them the name “darter.”
Not all darters are found in swift currents. The sand darters (Ammocrypta spp.) inhabit the sandy stretches of sluggish streams. Here they hide much of the time beneath the sand with only their eyes showing. The least darter and its close relative the cypress darter live in quiet pools, where they clamber about over the leaves and stems of submerged plants.
In Ozark streams, darters, along with minnows, are the dominant groups of small fishes. The geographic separation of the various stream systems has led to a great variety of uniquely different species. The common and widespread darters in the Ozarks are the greenside, rainbow, fantail, stippled, orangethroat, and banded darters, and the logperch. The yoke darter is abundant in the White River basin. The bluestripe, Niangua, and Missouri saddled darters are unique to the Ozarks of Missouri.
In the Mississippi Lowlands of Missouri’s Bootheel, darters are well represented but have fewer overall numbers than in the Ozarks. The principal darters in Missouri’s southeastern lowlands are western and scaly sand darters, and the bluntnose, slough, cypress, speckled, blackside, and dusky darters.
In the prairie (dissected till plains) region in the northern half of Missouri, darters are not very diverse. The johnny darter is the only species that is widespread. The logperch and the fantail, orangethroat, and slenderhead darters are common in some streams.
Four species of darters — the logperch, and the slenderhead, river, and western sand darters — are fairly common in the Mississippi River but are rare in the Missouri.
Darters usually eat a variety of small aquatic insects such as the larvae of midges, mosquitoes, blackflies, caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies, and small crustaceans such as aquatic isopods and amphipods, small crayfish, and sometimes snails. Different species have slightly different diets.
Seventeen darters are species of conservation concern, meaning that their presence in our state is to some degree imperiled:
- Seven Missouri darters are listed as endangered in the state of Missouri: crystal darter, swamp darter, harlequin darter, goldstripe darter, redfin darter, longnose darter, and Niangua darter. The Niangua darter is also listed as threatened on the federal list.
- Ten other Missouri darters are listed as species of conservation concern in Missouri: western sand darter, scaly sand darter, Arkansas darter, Current saddled darter, Arkansas saddled darter, least darter, channel darter, bluestripe darter, river darter, and stargazing darter. The Arkansas darter has been a candidate for being placed on the federal endangered species list and is considered “near threatened.”
At least three Missouri darters are endemic to our state, occurring nowhere else in the world: the Missouri saddled darter and bluestripe darter are found exclusively in streams of the northern Ozarks, and the Niangua darter is known only from a few tributaries of the Osage River.
Like most other perches, darters usually spawn in spring or early summer. Some of our earliest species to spawn are the greenside, rainbow, and orangethroat darters. The males of many darters occupy small territories during the spawning season and possess brilliant colors that advertise their presence to other fish of their own species. Most do not practice parental care, abandoning the territory once spawning has been completed. The johnny darter and fantail darter are exceptions: they spawn on the underside of rocks or other submerged objects, and the male remains with the eggs until they hatch.
Because of their small size, bright colors, and interesting habits, darters can be excellent aquarium fishes. Their main disadvantage is that they prefer live food, although they can be conditioned to eat frozen brine shrimp. Nongame fishes may be collected for aquarium purposes by the holder of a fishing permit, using techniques and in numbers specified in the Wildlife Code of Missouri. Make sure you identify the fishes correctly, since 17 species are listed as species of conservation concern, which may limit or prohibit their possession (consult the current Wildlife Code of Missouri).
It is possible to observe fishes in nature, and darters can be fun to watch. Most of them occur in clear, fairly shallow waters, and in spring, you can watch them feeding and spawning. During spawning season, many darters have brilliant colors and have interesting behaviors. If you are looking at them from above water, approach cautiously and avoid creating vibrations that may be transferred to the water. Consider using binoculars, or wear polarized sunglasses to reduce glare from the reflected sunlight. Choose days with little wind to break up the water’s surface.
The construction of large hydroelectric and flood control reservoirs in the last century has altered and destroyed stream habitat, leading to declines in many types of fishes, including some darters. The presence of a dam, and an immense lake not inhabitable by stream-dwelling fishes, blocks waterways, preventing fishes from one side of the dam from recolonizing streams on the other side of it. So if a population in a small tributary stream is eliminated for some reason, there may be no way for it to become repopulated.
Other environmental changes that have caused declines are due to land management, such as timber cutting, construction, and agricultural practices, that disturbs soils and, through runoff, leads to increased siltation in streams. For fishes like our various Ozark darters, which require clear-flowing streams with rocky or gravelly substrates, siltation is a major threat.
Darters comprise 4 genera and about 215 species. They are endemic to North America and are found nowhere else in the world. Because most species do not tolerate siltation or pollution very well, they are sensitive to habitat degradation. A large proportion of their species are threatened, endangered, or extinct. On the flip side, their presence in a stream can be a sign of good water quality.
Missouri is the home to about 21 percent of all the species of darters worldwide. Our state is rich with unique and diverse aquatic ecosystems, and it’s the responsibility of all of us to protect them.
Generally speaking, most animals where the males possess bright colors are species that have the ability to see color. They use color as a way to communicate their gender, their condition, and even their mood.
The nonbreeding coloration of darters is typically tans and browns, with darker mottled, banded, barred, saddled, or blotchy patterns. These camouflage them against the bottom substrate of streams.