Ozark Streams

Photo of the creek flowing away from Alley Spring

The Ozark Aquatic Faunal Region lies mostly south of the Missouri River. Its streams are typically clear, cool, and fast-flowing, with high gradients and chert bottoms.

Missouri has more than 110,000 miles of running water, which are the product of the land surrounding them. Their watersheds consist of uplands, floodplains, stream corridors, stream channels, and groundwater. Missouri biologists specializing in aquatic animals (aquatic fauna) have divided the state into four Aquatic Faunal Regions to describe where fish, crayfish, and other aquatic animals live.

Ozark Streams

In Missouri, the Ozark highlands occur mostly south of the Missouri River. To the east, they end where the Bootheel lowlands begin, and to the west, they transform gradually into the Prairie Faunal Region, showing a blend of characteristics along a line drawn roughly from Morgan through Jasper counties.

The streams in the Ozark region typically have steeper gradients than those in the north, and have coarse, rocky substrates.

Geologically, the Ozarks are an elevated plain of ancient bedrock, through which streams have carved deep channels, creating a complex system of rugged hills, rock outcrops and bluffs, and thin, stony soils. Much of the land is forested, and the primary agricultural use is pasture.

The limestone and dolomite karst geology in the Ozarks is famous for its caves and springs, and these influence the character of Ozark streams. Ozark streams typically occupy narrow, steep-sided valleys and often amount to a series of short pools connected by well-defined riffles. Ozark streams usually have coarse, rocky substrates and steeper gradients than those in our prairie regions. Chert gravel is often at the bottom of the stream bed. Ozark streams are typically clear and relatively cool, often because they are fed by springs.

The aquatic animals that live in these clear, cool, high-gradient, fast-flowing, chert-bottomed streams are particularly diverse, because the many separate stream systems are generally isolated from each other. Thus a fish, crayfish, or other aquatic species that lives in one stream may not occur at all in a separate stream only a few miles away — as the crow flies — because they cannot travel overland to reach that different stream system.

In addition to its famous streams and springs, the Ozark Aquatic Faunal Region also contains some large reservoirs created when certain rivers were dammed. The Lake of the Ozarks and Table Rock Lake are examples. These large lakes have their own habitat conditions quite different from Ozark streams, and their dams prevent aquatic animals from moving past them, particularly upstream.

Examples

The following major rivers and their systems of tributary streams are prime examples of the Ozark Aquatic Faunal Region.

  • The Osage and Gasconade rivers (which flow into the Missouri River)
  • The Meramec and St. Francis rivers (and others that flow into the Mississippi)
  • The James and North Fork rivers (which flow into the White River)
  • The Black River system (including the Eleven Point and Current rivers)
  • The Elk and Spring rivers (which flow into the Neosho River).

Typical Plants And Animals

The rather fast-flowing, clear, cool waters of Ozark streams, their substrates, and their water chemistry are home to many plants and animals not usually found elsewhere in the state. For example, of the two large groups of aquatic snails, it is the gilled snails (prosobranch snails) that predominate in Ozark streams, mostly because the fast-flowing, cool waters of Ozark streams hold more oxygen, making them better suited for snails that must extract oxygen from the water through gills.

Another example are the darters, a group of small fishes that are well represented and especially diverse in Ozark streams. Darters are adapted for life in 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, so when they are not swimming, they tend to sink to the bottom. They use their enlarged pectoral fins to hold them in place against rocks. Sculpins, another group of fish mainly present in Ozark streams, use their enlarged pectoral fins in much the same way.

Darters and many minnows in Ozark streams are often brilliantly colored, especially during breeding time. The colors function for mate attraction and assist in territorial displays. The clarity of Ozark streams permits such colors to be visible to other fish; murky water would preclude their usefulness.

Plants that predominate in Ozark streams are ones that are suited for high oxygen content, cool temperatures, relatively little silt, and fast flows. A typical example is watercress.

Mostly south of the Missouri River.

Media
Photo of watercress flowers
Species Types
Scientific Name
Nasturtium officinale (syn. Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum)
Description
Spring branches and streams in the Ozarks are decorated with large colonies of these plants, which can grow like thick green garlands in the water. It has a long history of use as a salad green, and it is cultivated to sell to gourmet cooks. If you collect watercress from the wild, make sure to wash it thoroughly.
Media
Picture of a patch of filamentous green algae floating in a stream.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cladophora, Pithophora, and Spirogyra spp., and others
Description
Filamentous green algae forms green, cottony masses that are free-floating or attached to rocks, debris, or other plants.
Media
Photo of American water willow closeup on flowers
Species Types
Scientific Name
Justicia americana
Description
American water willow is common on gravel bars and other stream banks throughout much of Missouri. The dense colonies of emergent stems have leaves like a willow’s, but the two-lipped flowers resemble little orchids.
Media
Photo of coontail aquatic plant with penny for scale
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ceratophyllum demersum
Description
Coontail, a common submerged aquatic plant, got its name from the crowded upper leaves, which make the stem tip appear bushy like the tail of a raccoon.
Media
Photo of American pondweed leaves floating on water surface
Species Types
Scientific Name
Potamogeton spp.
Description
Pondweeds are rooted aquatic plants with underwater leaves on long, flexible, jointed stems. Some have floating leaves, too, that are differently shaped. Missouri has about 10 species in the pondweed genus.
Media
Central stoneroller male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Campostoma anomalum (syn. C. pullum)
Description
The central stoneroller is a brownish minnow with small eyes. The lower jaw has a flat, shelflike extension used to scrape algae from rocks. Found statewide, it is most active during the daytime.
Media
Bleeding shiner male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Luxilus zonatus
Description
The bleeding shiner is restricted to the Ozarks. Males sport brilliant red during breeding season. Check your ID by noting the dark, crescent bar behind the gill cover and the dark stripe that abruptly narrows just behind the gill opening.
Media
Striped shiner male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Luxilus chrysocephalus
Description
The striped shiner is a rather large, deep-bodied minnow that inhabits clean, rocky streams, mostly south of the Missouri River.
Media
Ozark minnow female, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Notropis nubilus
Description
The Ozark minnow is small and slender, with a prominent dusky stripe along the midline that extends forward past the eye. It is one of the most common minnows in the Ozark uplands.
Media
Greenside darter female, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Etheostoma blennioides
Description
The greenside darter is one of our largest darters. It has olive to yellow sides and back with scattered red spots and vertical blotches often arranged in a V or W pattern. It is one of the most abundant and widespread darters in the Ozarks.
Media
Logperch side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Percina caprodes
Description
The logperch occurs in small- to medium-sized rivers and along gravel shorelines in reservoirs. Our largest darter has a distinctly conical snout that overhangs the mouth, and 15 to 20 vertical dark bars on a light background.
Media
Slender madtom side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Noturus exilis
Description
The slender madtom is the most common madtom in the western and northern Missouri Ozarks, in small and medium-sized streams that have gravel bottoms, clear water, and permanent flow. It is scarce in the southern Ozarks.
Media
Banded sculpin side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cottus carolinae
Description
The banded sculpin is widely distributed, occurring 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.
Media
Smallmouth bass side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Micropterus dolomieu
Description
The smallmouth bass is a popular gamefish mostly found in cool, clear Ozark streams and large reservoirs in the Ozarks. It's less common in the upper Mississippi River and its principal prairie tributaries that have clear water and permanent flow.
Media
Longear sunfish, spawning male, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis megalotis
Description
The longear sunfish is deep-bodied, slab-sided, with a moderate-sized mouth, the upper jaw nearly reaching the front of the eye. It is by far the most abundant and generally distributed sunfish over the southern half of Missouri.
Media
Bluegill male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis macrochirus
Description
The bluegill is one of the most abundant and popular panfishes in North America. This deep-bodied, slab-sided sunfish sports a black “ear flap” extending from the edge of its gill cover.
Media
Largemouth bass side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Micropterous salmoides
Description
The largemouth bass is a popular game fish that occurs statewide. It thrives in warm, moderately clear waters with little or no current: lakes, permanent pools of streams, and quiet backwaters of large rivers.
Media
Channel catfish side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ictalurus punctatus
Description
The channel catfish is the official Missouri state fish. It is pale with dark spots and is found statewide in a variety of habitats, preferring large, rather turbid streams with low or moderate gradients.
Media
Flathead catfish side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pylodictis olivaris
Description
The flathead catfish has a broad, flattened head with small eyes on top. The lower jaw projects beyond the upper jaw. It occurs in most of the large streams of Missouri, preferring places with a slow current.
Media
Photo of a spothanded crayfish viewed from above on white background.
Species Types
Scientific Name
About 36 species in Missouri
Description
Crayfish are freshwater aquatic invertebrates that look a lot like small lobsters, to which they are related. There are about 36 species of crayfish in Missouri.
Media
pond mussel
Species Types
Scientific Name
Bivalve molluscs in order Unionoida
Description
Secretive and seldom seen, freshwater mussels are extraordinarily diverse in Missouri. We have nearly 70 species within our borders. Many are declining, and several are endangered.
Media
hellbender, a large brown salamander resting in gravelly streambed
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cryptobranchus alleganiensis
Description
You might think they’re ugly by human standards, but hellbenders are a unique part of our wildlife heritage. They direly need help, or they might soon become extinct.
Media
Image of a pickerel frog
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lithobates palustris (formerly Rana palustris)
Description
The pickerel frog is medium-sized, with square or rectangular spots in two parallel rows down the back. There is a wide ridge of skin along each side of the back. It is absent from the northwestern third of Missouri.
Media
Photo of an alderfly larva among rocks and gravel in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Sialis spp.
Description
Alderfly larvae look a lot like their cousins the fishflies, but instead of having pairs of fleshy tails, they have only a single tail pointing straight back.
Media
Photo of caddisfly larva with case made of detritus
Species Types
Scientific Name
Various species in the order Trichoptera
Description
The aquatic larvae of caddisflies are famous for building portable, protective cases out of local materials, including grains of sand, bits of leaves and twigs, and other debris. The adults are mothlike.
Media
Photo of a damselfly nymph on rocks in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the suborder Zygoptera
Description
Damselfly larvae are narrow-bodied aquatic insects with large eyes, six thin legs, and three paddle-shaped, tail-like gills at the hind end.
Media
Photo of a dragonfly larva resting on a stone.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the suborder Anisoptera
Description
Dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects with large eyes, six legs, and an oval or rounded segmented abdomen. The lower jaws are scooplike and cover much of the lower part of the head.
Media
Photo of a mayfly naiad crawling on rock underwater
Species Types
Scientific Name
There are hundreds of species in North America.
Description
Mayfly larvae, or nymphs, live from months to years under water, breathing through gills, and the adults fly around in the air, mating, living for only a day or two.
Media
Photo of stonefly naiad on a rock underwater
Species Types
Scientific Name
There are hundreds of species in North America
Description
Stonefly larvae are aquatic and somewhat resemble the larvae of mayflies and damselflies. Their presence usually indicates good water quality.
Media
Photo of hellgrammite
Species Types
Scientific Name
Corydalus cornutus
Description
Hellgrammites are the aquatic larval form of eastern dobsonflies. They are fiercely predaceous and look a little like centipedes. Anglers often use them as bait.
Media
Photo of a spotted fishing spider and several water springtails at the surface of shallow water
Species Types
Scientific Name
Dolomedes triton
Description
The spotted fishing spider ;lives around ponds, slow-moving streams, swampy areas, and other damp places. It ;can run across the surface of water much like water striders and will dive for prey, including small tadpoles or aquatic insects.
Media
Photo of two water penny beetles clinging to a wet rock.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Beetles in the family Psephenidae
Description
Water penny beetle larvae are truly nifty aquatic invertebrates that bring out the child in all of us. Some of them really do look like pennies!
Media
Photo of a whirligig beetle viewed from above
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the beetle family Gyrinidae
Description
Groups of whirligig beetles swim on the water surface in quick, random patterns, searching for food. They have two pairs of eyes — one pair above water, one pair below — to help them quickly and accurately capture their prey.
Media
Photo of a beaver half in water
Species Types
Scientific Name
Castor canadensis
Description
The American beaver is a semiaquatic rodent distinguished by its large size, webbed hind feet, and large, horizontally flattened tail covered with leathery scales.
Media
photo of river otter
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lontra canadensis
Description
The North American river otter was once nearly eliminated in Missouri, but thanks to restoration efforts, these powerful swimmers are once again found throughout most of the state.
Media
Photo of long-tailed weasel
Species Types
Scientific Name
Mustela frenata
Description
Long-tailed weasels are small but voracious predators. They are rare in our state but are most common in the south-central and southwestern portions. In summer, they are brown with yellow beneath. In winter their fur is paler or white. The tail has a black tip.
Media
Photo of great blue heron
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ardea herodias
Description
This large, graceful, blue-gray bird with a black, plumed eye line has long legs for wading and a slender neck and spearlike bill for catching fish.
Media
Photo of a green heron
Species Types
Scientific Name
Butorides virescens
Description
Green, gray, and brown, the stocky, crow-sized green heron hunches motionless at the water’s edge, waiting patiently for a fish to swim within striking distance.
Media
Image of barred owl
Species Types
Scientific Name
Strix varia
Description
The barred owl is easily identified both visually and by sound. Learn to recognize its call, and on moonlit nights in their habitat, you may hear it quite often!
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