Darter and Perch (Family Percidae) Diversity in North Carolina

By the NCFishes.com Team

Our native species of darters and perches are just as brightly colored as many fishes one would find in a pet shop, yet few people are aware of their existence. There are 38 species of darters and perches in North Carolina (Table 1), including several species found in only one river basin and at least two species, which may be re-named or split into additional species (Tracy et al. 2020). [Please note: Tracy et al. (2020) may be downloaded for free at: https://trace.tennessee.edu/sfcproceedings/vol1/iss60/1.] Distributional maps for every species may be found in Tracy et al. (2020; Map Nos. 206-245). Two species have been extirpated from our state – Blueside Darter, Etheostoma jessiae, and Sickle Darter, Percina williamsi.

Table 1. Species of darters and perches found in North Carolina.
Scientific Name/ American Fisheries Society Accepted Common NameScientific Name/ American Fisheries Society Accepted Common Name
Etheostoma acuticeps, Sharphead DarterEtheostoma thalassinum, Seagreen Darter
Etheostoma blennioides, Greenside DarterEtheostoma vitreum, Glassy Darter
Etheostoma brevispinum, Carolina Fantail DarterEtheostoma vulneratum, Wounded Darter
Etheostoma chlorobranchium, Greenfin DarterEtheostoma zonale, Banded Darter
Etheostoma collis, Carolina DarterPerca flavescens, Yellow Perch
Etheostoma flabellare, Fantail DarterPercina aurantiaca, Tangerine Darter
Etheostoma fusiforme, Swamp DarterPercina burtoni, Blotchside Logperch
Etheostoma gutselli, Tuckasegee DarterPercina caprodes, Logperch
Etheostoma inscriptum, Turquoise DarterPercina crassa, Piedmont Darter
Etheostoma kanawhae, Kanawha DarterPercina evides, Gilt Darter
Etheostoma mariae, Pinewoods DarterPercina gymnocephala, Appalachia Darter
Etheostoma nigrum, Johnny DarterPercina nevisense, Chainback Darter
Etheostoma olmstedi, Tessellated DarterPercina oxyrhynchus, Sharpnose Darter
Etheostoma perlongum, Waccamaw DarterPercina rex, Roanoke Logperch
Etheostoma podostemone, Riverweed DarterPercina roanoka, Roanoke Darter
Etheostoma rufilineatum, Redline DarterPercina squamata, Olive Darter
Etheostoma serrifer, Sawcheek DarterPercina westfalli, Westfall’s Darter
Etheostoma simoterum, Snubnose DarterSander canadensis, Sauger
Etheostoma swannanoa, Swannanoa DarterSander vitreus, Walleye
Etheostoma zonale
Banded Darter – Etheostoma zonale – Nolichucky River Basin

You might have heard people calling them simply darters, Raccoon Perch, Ringed Perch, Lake Perch, Redfin Perch, Jack Salmon, Pike, Pike Perch, Jackfish, Walleyed Pike, River Slicks, or many other colloquial names. But each species has its own scientific (Latin) name, which coincidentally actually means something (please refer to The Meanings of the Scientific Names of Darters and Perches, pages 23 and 24), and an American Fisheries Society-accepted common name (Page et al. 2013).

Percina aurantiaca
Tangerine Darter – Percina aurantiaca – Pigeon River Basin

Darters and perches are found throughout our state from the Mountains to the Sand Hills to the Coastal Plain in reservoirs, creeks, large and small rivers, swamps, and channelized streams. [Note: see Supplemental Maps 1-3 , page 25, showing North Carolina’s 100 counties, 21 river basins, and 4 physiographic regions.] They can be found in turbulent and fast, cold, gin-clear Mountain streams to warm and turbid Piedmont streams to slow-moving, tannin (tea)-colored Sand Hills and Coastal Plain streams. Darters are generally found in riffles and runs, whereas Yellow Perch can also be found in reservoirs and ponds, and Walleye and Sauger may also be found in reservoirs and in pools and deep runs in low- to moderate-gradient rivers. At least two species, Banded Darter and Riverweed Darter, are closely associated with Riverweed, Podostemum, an aquatic plant that grows attached to rocks in riffles and runs. Most darters are only a few inches long, but Walleye and Sauger can reach almost 3 feet in length and along with Yellow Perch are widely sought after game species noted for their delectability.

Etheostoma podostemone
Riverweed Darter – Etheostoma podostemone – Roanoke River Basin

Thirteen species of darters were scientifically described from North Carolina (Table 2; Tracy et al 2020). Four of these species were describe by Edward Drinker Cope in 1870, including two from Wake County near Raleigh.

Table 2. Species of darters scientifically described from North Carolina.
Common NameScientific NameType Locailty
Carolina DarterEtheostoma brevispinum (Coker) 1926Paddys Creek near Lake James, Burke Co.
Greenfin Darter Etheostoma chlorobranchium Zorach 1972Cullasaja River near Franklin, Macon Co.
Tuckasegee DarterEtheostoma gutselli (Hildebrand) 1932Tuckasegee River near Ela, Swain Co.
Kanawha DarterEtheostoma kanawhae (Raney) 1941North Fork of the New River at Crumpler, Ashe Co.
Pinewoods DarterEtheostoma mariae (Fowler) 1947 Outlet of Watson’s Lake near Southern Pines, Moore Co.
Waccamaw DarterEtheostoma perlongum (Hubbs & Raney) 1946Lake Waccamaw, Columbus Co.
Redline DarterEtheostoma rufilineatum (Cope) 1870Spring Creek at Hot Springs, Madison Co.
Sawcheek DarterEtheostoma serrifer (Hubbs & Cannon) 1935Buffalo Creek near Wendell, Wake Co.
Glassy DarterEtheostoma vitreum (Cope) 1870Walnut Creek at Raleigh, Wake Co.
Wounded DarterEtheostoma vulneratum (Cope) 1870Spring Creek at Hot Springs, Madison Co.
Blotchside LogperchPercina burtoni Fowler 1945 Swannanoa River near Oteen, Buncombe Co.
Appalachia DarterPercina gymnocephala Beckham 1980South Fork New River near West Jefferson, Ashe Co.
Chainback DarterPercina nevisense (Cope) 1870Falls of the Neuse River, Wake Co.
Etheostoma rufilineatum
Redline Darter – Etheostoma rufilineatum

Each of North Carolina’s 100 counties has at least one species of darter found within its borders. Yellow Perch is found in 18 of our 21 basins; it has yet to be found in the Savannah, Watauga, and Nolichucky basins. It has been introduced into the French Broad, Pigeon, Little Tennessee, and Hiwassee  basins. Our most diverse basin is the French Broad where there are currently 13 indigenous (native) species and 2 nonindigenous (introduced) species (Yellow Perch and Swamp Darter); four species have been extirpated from the basin – Blueside Darter, Wounded Darter, Sickle Darter, and Blotchside Logperch (Figure 1). The least diverse basin is the small, headwaters Watauga basin with only Greenfin Darter and Tangerine Darter. Twelve species are found in only one basin (Table 3). Along with the four species extirpated from the French Broad basin, Walleye has long been extirpated from the Neuse basin.

Diversity of the Family Percidae across North Carolina’s river basins.

Figure 1. Diversity of the Family Percidae across North Carolina’s river basins.

Table 3. Species of darters and perches found in only one river basin in North Carolina.
River BasinSpecies
NewKanawha Darter, Appalachia Darter, Sharpnose Darter
NolichuckySharphead Darter, Blotchside Logperch
Little TennesseeWounded Darter
SavannahTurquoise Darter, Westfall’s Darter
RoanokeRiverweed Darter, Roanoke Logperch
LumberPinewoods Darter
WaccamawWaccamaw Darter
Etheostoma kanawhae
Kanawha Darter – Etheostoma kanawhae – New River Basin

Because many darter species are endemic to specific basins, 18 species are considered imperiled in North Carolina (Table 4; Krabbenhoft et al. 2006; NCAC 2017; NCNHP 2018; NCWRC 2017; Roberts and Rosenberger 2008). Walleye, Sauger, and Yellow Perch, on the other hand, are classified and managed as game species by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC 2020). For more specific information on Walleye and Yellow Perch, please see: the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission sport fish profiles (NCWRC 2010; NCWRC 2011, NCWRC undated).

Perca flavescens
Yellow Perch – Perca flavescens
Table 4. Listings of imperiled darter and perch species in North Carolina (NCAC 2017, NCNHP 2020, and NCWRC 2017). *Federally Endangered.
Level of ImperilmentSpecies
EndangeredBlotchside Logperch, Sharpnose Darter, Roanoke Logperch*
ThreatenedSharphead Darter, Turquoise Darter, Logperch, Waccamaw Darter
Special ConcernCarolina Darter, Pinewoods Darter, Snubnose Darter, Wounded Darter, Olive Darter, Westfall’s Darter
Significantly RareKanawha Darter, Riverweed Darter, Seagreen Darter, Appalachia Darter, Sauger
Etheostoma inscriptum
Turquoise Darter – Etheostoma inscriptum – Savannah River Basin

As compared to other families of fish, e.g., sunfishes and catfishes, few species of darters have been introduced outside of their native ranges in North Carolina. It is suspected that bait bucket dumps have led to the introduction of Tessellated Darter into the New basin and Redline Darter into the Little Tennessee basin. Transportation of aquatic plants may have led to the introduction of the Swamp Darter into the French Broad and Pigeon. And Yellow Perch, Walleye, and Sauger, have been stocked because of their popularity as game fishes.

Key characteristics for their proper identification include the presence/absence of modified scales on the belly; the presence/absence of scales on the nape and cheek; the presence/absence of a frenum; the number and thickness of anal fin spines; lateral line shape and scale counts; the number of un-pored lateral line scales; the number of spines and rays in the dorsal fins; overall color patterns; and the geographical distributions of the species (please refer to Identification Key to the Species of Darters and Perches (Family Percidae) in North Carolina). Most species can easily be told apart from one another, with the possible exceptions of Johnny vs. Tessellated darters and Swamp vs. Carolina darters where their ranges also overlap.

Etheostoma fusiforme
Swamp Darter – Etheostoma fusiforme

If you have troubles with your identifications, just send us (https://ncfishes.com/contact/) an e-mail and include as many quality digital photographs as you can along with all the pertinent locality descriptors so that we will know from where the fish came.

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