Identifying Suckers May Not Be as Hard as You Might Think

By the Team

The correct identification of suckers (Family Catostomidae) may be intimidating to those students or citizens just beginning to study our extremely diverse and colorful freshwater fish fauna. With some practice and with a keen eye to details, one can master this skill, although it might take a while and require handling a lot of fishes. Key characteristics for identification include the shape and texture of the lips (Hogue and Tracy 2014), lateral line scale counts, dorsal fin rays counts, and pharyngeal teeth structure (please refer to the downloadable link at the bottom of this post – Identification Key to the Species of Suckers (Family Catostomidae) in North Carolina).

Moxostoma collapsum Lips
Moxostoma collapsum – Notchlip Redhorse Lips

In our state there are 29 species of suckers including 5 undescribed species (Table 1). You might have heard fishermen calling them Mullets, Redhorses, Hoovers, Creek Trout, Razor Back, or many more 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 Suckers, pages 17 and 18 in the downloadable link provided at the bottom of this post), and an American Fisheries Society-accepted common name. They are found throughout North Carolina in streams, big rivers and reservoirs from Cherokee County in the Mountains to Dare County along the Albemarle Sound. Every county has at least one species, but Stokes County takes the prize for having the most – 11 species! They are Northern Hog Sucker, Roanoke Hog Sucker, Notchlip Redhorse, Golden Redhorse, V-lip Redhorse, Bigeye Jumprock, Blacktip Jumprock, “Brassy” Jumprock, White Sucker, Rustyside Sucker, and Quillback (Beane 2017; Hogue and Tracy 2014).

Table 1. Species of suckers found in North Carolina. Common names enclosed with tick marks ('') are scientifically undescribed species.

Scientific Name / American Fisheries Society Accepted Common NameScientific Name / American Fisheries Society Accepted Common Name
Carpiodes carpio, River CarpsuckerMoxostoma breviceps, Smallmouth Redhorse
Carpiodes cyprinus, QuillbackMoxostoma carinatum, River Redhorse
Carpiodes sp. "Atlantic" Highfin Carpsucker, Moxostoma cervinum, Blacktip Jumprock
Carpiodes sp. "Carolina" Quillback, Moxostoma collapsum, Notchlip Redhorse
Catostomus commersonii, White SuckerMoxostoma duquesnei, Black Redhorse
Erimyzon oblongus, Creek ChubsuckerMoxostoma erythrurum, Golden Redhorse
Erimyzon sucetta, Lake ChubsuckerMoxostoma macrolepidotum, Shorthead Redhorse
Hypentelium nigricans, Northern Hog SuckerMoxostoma pappillosum, V-lip Redhorse
Hypentelium roanokense, Roanoke Hog SuckerMoxostoma robustum, Robust Redhorse
Ictiobus bubalus, Smallmouth BuffaloMoxostoma rupiscartes, Striped Jumprock
Ictiobus cyprinellus, Bigmouth BuffaloMoxostoma sp. "Brassy" Jumprock
Ictiobus niger, Black BuffaloMoxostoma sp. "Carolina" Redhorse
Minytrema melanops, Spotted SuckerMoxostoma sp. "Sicklefin" Redhorse,
Moxostoma anisurum, Silver RedhorseThoburnia hamiltoni, Rustyside Sucker
Moxostoma ariommum, Bigeye Jumprock

Three species are found in only one river basin: Rustyside Sucker and Bigeye Jumprock which are found only in the upper Roanoke River basin and Black Buffalo found only in the lower French Broad River basin. White Sucker is our most widely distributed species; it is found in 15 of our 21 river basins, but absent from waters east of Interstate 95 in the Chowan, Albemarle Sound, White Oak, Shallotte, Waccamaw, and Lumber basins (Tracy et al. 2020).

Moxostoma ariommum
Moxostoma ariommum – Bigeye Jumprock

More species of suckers, 17, are found in the Yadkin River basin than in any of the other 21 basins. Those 17 species include 4 species that have been introduced from other basins in North Carolina – Northern Hog Sucker, Roanoke Hog Sucker, Smallmouth Buffalo and Striped Jumprock, and 1 species introduced from outside the state, Bigmouth Buffalo. Our least speciose basin is the New basin where only Northern Hog Sucker and White Sucker are found.

Twelve species are considered imperiled in North Carolina: 1) State Endangered – Robust Redhorse and Rustyside Sucker; 2) State Threatened – Bigeye Jumprock, Moxostoma sp. “Sicklefin” Redhorse and Moxostoma sp. “Carolina” Redhorse; 3) State Special Concern – River Carpsucker and Carpiodes sp. “Atlantic Highfin” Carpsucker; and 4) Significantly Rare – Quillback, Carpiodes sp. “Carolina” Quillback, Smallmouth Buffalo, Black Buffalo, and Smallmouth Redhorse (NCAC 2017; NCNHP 2018; NCWRC 2017).

Notchlip Redhorse
Moxostoma collapsum – Notchlip Redhorse

So, don’t shy away from learning more about this fascinating family of freshwater fishes. If you have troubles with your identifications, just send us ( 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.

Sicklefin Redhorse
Moxostoma sp. “Sicklefin” Redhorse

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