A Summary of the Freshwater Fishes of North Carolina

By the NCFishes.com Team

This is the last blog in the series focusing on the freshwater fishes of North Carolina, which was launched on June 17, 2020 (https://ncfishes.com/identification-of-north-carolina-freshwater-fishes/). In some respects, this last blog should have been the first, but learning about fishes is never along a straight stream, unless it is in a channelized stream. Our last identification key to all the families of freshwater fishes found in North Carolina can be found at the end of this summary (please refer to An Identification Key to the Freshwater Families in North Carolina).

Moxostoma breviceps
Smallmouth Redhorse – Moxostoma breviceps – Oconaluftee River – Little Tennessee River Basin

These 26 blogs, with their narratives and species identification keys, serve as a companion to “An Annotated Atlas of the Freshwater Fishes of North Carolina” by Tracy et al. (2020). [Please note: Tracy et al. (2020) may be downloaded for free at: https://trace.tennessee.edu/sfcproceedings/vol1/iss60/1.] Along with Tracy et al. (2020), our main webpage, NCFishes.com, and our freshwater-focused webpages (https://ncfishes.com/freshwater-fishes-of-north-carolina/, we have provided much needed revisions and updates to the “The Freshwater Fishes of North Carolina” by Menhinick (1991).

From the little community of Liberty in Cherokee County to the small Outer Banks town of Buxton in Dare County (about 620 miles as the wolf runs), North Carolina’s waters are home to 39 families of “freshwater” fishes (Table 1). This list includes 30 families whose species are primarily freshwater, 5 families whose species are primarily marine and estuarine, and 4 families whose species are more or less evenly split between fresh water and marine (Table 1). The list of families also include five families that are not indigenous (native) to North Carolina – Cyprinidae, Xenocyprididae, Cobitidae, Loricariidae, and Cichlidae.

FamilyAmerican Fisheries Society Accepted Common NameNo. of Described & Undescribed Freshwater SpeciesNo. of Additional Marine/ Estuarine Species in North Carolina
AnguillidaeAmerican Eels10
CyprinidaeBarbs and Carps20
XenocyprididaeAsian Carps10
IctaluridaeNorth American Catfishes180
LoricariidaeSuckermouth Armored Catfishes10
SalmonidaeTrouts and Salmons40
AphredoderidaePirate Perches10
AtherinopsidaeNew World Silversides42
MoronidaeTemperate Basses3**0
SciaenidaeDrums and Croakers217
ElassomatidaePygmy Sunfishes30
ParalichthyidaeSand Flounders119
AchiridaeAmerican Soles12

*Currently extirpated from the state with future reintroduction possible. **A hybrid species is also widely stocked. ***Number does not include two extirpated species.

Etheostoma thalassinum
Seagreen Darter – Etheostoma thalassinum – Catawba River Basin

These 39 families include 242 described species (including three extirpated species) and 15 undescribed species (Table 3 in Tracy et al. 2020; Table 2 below). Our two most speciose families are Leuciscidae (minnows, 68 species) and Percidae (darters and perches, 40 species). There are 17 families that have only one freshwater species found in North Carolina (Table 1). Our known undescribed species can be identified using the identification keys developed for each family. There may be additional undescribed or currently unrecognized species presently “hiding” within Fantail Darter, Etheostoma flabellare, Mimic Shiner, Notropis volucellus, and Bluehead Chub, Nocomis leptocephalus (Tracy et al. 2020).

Table 2. Undescribed species (i.e., species awaiting formal scientific descriptions) found in North Carolina.
Family, Genus, Common Name*Family, Genus, Common Name*
Clinostomus sp. “Smoky” DaceNoturus sp. “Lake Waccamaw Broadtail” Madtom
Clinostomus sp. “Hiwassee” DaceNoturus sp. “Pee Dee River Broadtail” Madtom
Cyprinella sp. “Thinlip” ChubNoturus sp. “Cape Fear River Broadtail” Madtom
Notropis sp. “Piedmont” ShinerFundulidae
Notropis sp. “Kanawha” Rosyface ShinerFundulus sp. “Lake Phelps” Killifish
Carpiodes sp. “Atlantic” Highfin CarpsuckerMicropterus sp. “Bartram's” Bass
Carpiodes sp. “Carolina” Quillback
Moxostoma sp. “Brassy” Jumprock
Moxostoma sp. “Carolina” Redhorse
Moxostoma sp. “Sicklefin” Redhorse

*Common Names are used strictly for convenience and may or may not be the accepted common name once the species is scientifically described.

Clinostomus sp "Hiwassee Dace"
“Hiwassee Dace” – Clinostomus sp. – Hiwassee River Basin

Since the first North Carolina-specific checklist was provided by John Lawson in 1709 (Lawson 1709, pages 152-160), three species have been extirpated from our waters: Paddlefish, Polyodon spathula, Blueside Darter, Etheostoma jessiae, and Sickle Darter, Percina williamsi. To our knowledge, Paddlefish is known anecdotally and historically (in 1869, 1873, and 1874 ) only from the French Broad River near Asheville and Brevard (Cope 1870; Anon. 1873; Anon. 1874; Luke Etchison, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, pers. comm.). Sickle Darter has not been encountered since 1940 and Blueside Darter since 1949 and 1950 (Tracy et al. 2020).

Species that we believed to have been extirpated, have been re-discovered or reintroduced: Bridle Shiner, Notropis bifrenatus, (Neuse, Chowan), Rustyside Sucker, Thoburnia hamiltoni, (Roanoke), Robust Redhorse, Moxostoma robustum, (Yadkin), Mountain Madtom, Noturus eleutherus, (French Broad), Banded Sculpin, Cottus carolinae, (Pigeon, French Broad), Snubnose Darter, Etheostoma simoterum, (French Broad, Nolichucky), and Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, (French Broad) (Tracy et al. 2020). [Note: see Supplemental Maps 1-3, page 19, showing North Carolina’s 100 counties, 21 river basins, and 4 physiographic regions.]

Noturus eleutherus
Mountain Madtom – Noturus eleutherus – French Broad River Basin

With our continually updated website, blog postings, photographic library, and identification keys it is our hope that we will encourage additional interest in and conservation of our rich freshwater fish fauna and their aquatic habitats by citizens, students, and researchers alike. If you have any questions about any of the material we have posted on our webpages or encounter any errors which we have made, please do not hesitate to contact us (https://ncfishes.com/contact/).

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