Georgia is home to about 45 different species of darters. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to keep a solid count because fish taxonomy is constantly changing. (Nonetheless, that means new species and improving our genetic libraries to maintain accuracy in Fish ID.) Darters are in the family Percidae which also includes logperches and walleye. Yes, there is a high number of darter species in Georgia, but the majority of them have limited ranges because of their habitat preference.
Most darters prefer swift moving water, like a riffle microhabitat, and gravel substrate. Darters have small swim bladders so they can sink and sit on the bottom of streams. Their pectoral and pelvic fins are also modified to help “hold” onto rocks in the strong current. Their in-stream habitat preference is what makes darters so sensitive to sediment deposition, which is very common with urbanization and construction runoff.
Darters reproduce by the female laying her eggs in the substrate and the male fertilizing them. If there isn’t gravel for the eggs to settle in, they will have difficulty reproducing. Female darters are typically more naturally pigmented, while male darters color up during breeding season to outshine their competition. Their intense colorations is usually why darters are a common favorite non-game species. The best time to look for colored up darters would be spring time, or early March-April.
Darters may be small and sensitive, but they are a vital part of Georgia’s diverse fish fauna. About 20 of Georgia’s darter species are considered rare in the state. Some species are even endemic to Georgia, and can’t be found anywhere else in the world.
I hate to say that I didn’t even know that darters existed before I took Ichthyology, and that is a huge disappointment to me. I grew up playing in creeks and would have enjoyed them much sooner if I just knew what to look for. This is why educating the public on the non-game species of fish that don’t get the recognition they deserve is so important to me. But if you’ve just read this post, now you are one more person who knows about how amazing darters are.
Know your watersheds, explore your local creeks, and enjoy learning about Georgia’s freshwater fishes!
**Pictured above: Speckled Darter (Etheostoma stigmaeum)**