Ammocrypta clara

western sand darter



Type Locality

Des Moines River, Ottumwa, Iowa (Jordan and Meek1885).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Ammocrypta, Greek, meaning “sand concealed,” in reference to the habit of lying buried in the sand; clara, Latin meaning “clear,” in reference to the translucent appearance of the species (Pflieger 1997).



Ammocrypta clara Jordan and Meek 1885:8.



Maximum size: 70 mm (Etnier and Starnes 1993).


Coloration: Live fish are a translucent, pale yellow. There are 12-18 dark, narrow dorsal blotches and narrow horizontal “dashes” along the lateral line, with the latter more prominent in males (J.D. Williams 1975). Lateral blotches longer than deep (Hubbs et al. 1991). Lateral scale margins are outlined in black. The undersides of the head and body are unpigmented except for a narrow midventral black stripe that extends from the anal base to the caudal fin. Head pigmentation consists of scattered melanophores dorsally, a band of melanophores anterior to the eyes and extending onto the snout and scattered melanophores posterior to the eyes. The median fins are lightly spotted near the bases and along the fin elements; pectoral fins have small spots at the bases and pelvic fins are clear (Ross 2001).


Counts: Lateral line scales 63-84; 10-12 (9-13) dorsal rays; 9-13 dorsal spines; pectoral fin rays 13-14 (12-15); principle caudal fin rays 15-16 ; gill rakers 10-12; vertebrae 39-40 (38-42; Etnier and Starnes 1993); 1 anal spine; 8-9 (8-11) anal rays (Ross 2001).


Body shape: Very slender, almost cylindrical (Becker 1983); body depth contained in standard length more then seven times; upper jaw not extending as far as to below middle of eye (Hubbs et al. 1991); minute teeth in narrow bands on upper and lower jaws (Becker 1983).


Mouth position: Terminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


External morphology: Scales restricted to lateral line region; belly naked; preopercle smooth or weakly serrate (Hubbs et al. 1991); length of longest gill rakers about 3 times their basal width (Etnier and Starnes 1993); large mouth (Ross 2001). Males develop breeding tubercles on the anal, lower caudal, and pelvic fins (Collette 1965).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Occurs in the mainstream Mississippi River and its larger tributaries, from southern Minnesota and Wisconsin (including Lake Michigan drainage) southward into Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas (Williams 1975).


Texas distribution: The range of this species extends from Neches, Sabine, and Red River basins (Jordan and Meek 1885; Williams 1975; Stauffer 1980; Hubbs et al. 1991; Warren et al. 2000).


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

Not listed as threatened or endangered by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

(2006). Considered vulnerable in the southeastern drainages (Warren et al. 2000).


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: In habits medium to large streams where it occurs in sandy areas with moderate current (Etnier and Starnes 1993; Carlander 1997). This species has the habit of burying itself in soft sand with nothing visible but its eyes and mouth (Cahn 1927); western sand darter buries itself in the same manner described for other sand darters (Page 1983).


Mesohabitat: Specimens from Powell River, Tennessee, were taken from a slight depression in bedrock which contained deposits of silty sand; water depth averaged about 1 m (Etnier and Starnes 1993). Found over soft sand and gravel substrate in clear to turbid water usually less than 1 m deep (Carlander 1997). Occur in waters having slight to moderate current over sandy substrata (Starnes et al.1977; Keuhne and Barbour 1983).



Spawning season: In East Texas, record of a ripe female on 8 April and fertilization of darter eggs by male A. clara on 5 April (Hubbs 1985). Based on breeding tubercles and ovary examination, height of spawning season occurs in July and early August; females with mature eggs found in late August (Williams 1975).


Spawning habitat: Open substratum spawners; Psammophils are sand spawners with adhesive eggs (Simon et al. 1992; Simon 1999).


Reproductive strategy: Nonguarders; open substratum spawners; psammophils; sand spawners with adhesive eggs, free embryos not possessing cement glands, free embryos with large pectorals, larvae with weakly developed respiratory structures and large neuromasts (cupulae), and phototropic larvae (Balon 1991; Simon et al.1992; Simon 1999). Reproductive strategy for Ammocrypta clara may be like that of the eastern sand darter A. pellucida (Putnam): A. pellucida male takes position above the female and both vibrate rapidly, burying their tails and caudal peduncles in the sand. Sometimes a second positions himself beside and vibrates as well (Pflieger1997).


Fecundity: Lutterbie (1979) found mature ova collected from females in Wisconsin, June-September, to measure 0.8-1.0 mm in diameter and vary in number from 61 to 324 depending on size of female. Lutterbie (1976) reported that eggs appeared in three size classes: yellow eggs, 0.5 mm diameter; orange eggs, 0.75 mm; and orange eggs, 1.00 mm.


Age at maturation:




Growth and population structure: From 178 specimens collected in Wisconsin, Lutterbie (1979) calculated a mean total length of about 44 mm at the first annulus, 56 mm at the second, and 61 mm at the third. Females usually  larger and more abundant that males in collections (Lutterbie 1976; Stauffer 1980).




Food habits: Invertivore; benthic; feeding on aquatic insects (Forbes and Richardson 1920; Goldstein and Simon 1999). Diet includes mayfly nymphs (Ephemeroptera), midge larvae (Diptera), and Hyalella (Carlander 1997).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

The western sand darter is most similar to the scaly sand darter; differing from A. vivax in usually having 7 or fewer transverse scales (Ross 2001).


Host Records



Commercial or Environmental Importance




Balon, E.K. 1981. Additions and amendments to the classification of reproductive styles in fishes. Environmental Biology of Fishes 6:377-389.

Cahn, A.R. 1927. An ecological study of the southern Wisconsin fishes. The brook silverside (Labidesthes sicculus) and the cisco (Leucichthys artedi) in their relations to the region. Ill. Biol. Monogr. 11(1)1-151.

Carlander, K.D. 1997. Handbook of Freshwater fishery biology. Vol.3. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames. 397 pp.

Collette, B.B. 1965. Systematic significance of breeding tubercles in fishes of the family Percidae. Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus. 117(3518):567-614.

Etnier, D.A. and W.C. Starnes. 1993. The fishes of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville 681 pp.

Forbes, S.A., and R.E. Richardson. 1920. The Fishes of Illinois. Ill. Nat. Hist. Surv. Bull. 3. 357 pp.

Goldstein, R.M., and T.P. Simon. 1999. Toward a united definition of guild structure for feeding ecology of North American freshwater fishes. pp. 123-202 in T.P. Simon, editor. Assessing the sustainability and biological integrity of water resources using fish communities. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Hubbs, C. 1985. Darter Reproductive Seasons. Copeia, 1985(1):56-68.

Hubbs, C. L., R.J. Edwards and G.P. Garret. 1991. An annotated checklist of freshwater fishes of Texas, with key to identification of species. Texas Journal of Science, Supplement 43(4):1-56

Johnston, C.H. Spawning in the Eastern Sand Darter, Ammocrypta pellucida (Pisces: Percidae), with comments on the Phylogeny of Ammocrypta and related taxa. Trans. Ill. Acad. Sci., 83(3 and 4):163-168.

Jordan, D.S. and S.E. Meek. 1885. List of fishes collected in Iowa and Missouri in August, 1884, with descriptions of three new species. Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus. 8(1):1-17.

Kuehne, R.A. and R.W. Barbour. 1983. The American Darters. Univ. Press of Kentucky, Lexington.

Lutterbie, G.W. 1976. The darters (Pisces: Percidae: Etheostomatinae) of Wisconsin. Univ. Wis., Stevens Point. MAT Thesis. 307 pp.

Lutterbie, G.W. 1979. Reproduction and age and growth in Wisconsin darters (Osteichthys: Percidae). Rept. Fauna and Flora Wisc. 15:1-44.

Page, L.M. 1983. Handbook of Darters. T.F.H. Publications, Neptune City, NJ. 271 pp.

Pflieger, W.L. 1997. The Fishes of Missouri. Revised Edition. Missouri Department of Conservation. Jefferson City, MO pp. 1-372.

Simon, T.P., E.J. Tyberghein, K.J. Scheidegger, and C.E. Johnston. 1992. Descriptions of protolarvae of the sand darters (Percidae: Ammocrypta and Crystallaria) with comments on systematic relationships. Icthyological Explorations of Freshwaters 3:347-358.

Simon, T. P. 1999. Assessment of Balon’s reproductive guilds with application to Midwestern North American Freshwater Fishes, pp. 97-121. In: Simon, T.L. (ed.). Assessing the sustainability and biological integrity of water resources using fish communities. CRC Press. Boca Raton, Florida. 671 pp.

Starnes, W.C., D.A. Etnier, L.B. Starnes, and N.H. Douglas. 1977. Zoogeographic implications of the rediscovery of the percid genus Ammocrypta in the Tennessee River drainage. Copeia 1977(4):783-786.

Stauffer, J.R., Jr. 1980. Ammocrypta clara (Jordan and Meek), Western Sand Darter. pp.618 in D.S. Lee et al. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. N.C. State Mus. Nat. Hist., Raleigh, i-r+854 pp.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Wildlife Division, Diversity and Habitat Assessment Programs. County Lists of Texas' Special Species. [30 May 2006]. Available online at:

Warren, L. W., Jr., B. M. Burr, S. J. Walsh, H. L. Bart, Jr., R. C. Cashner, D. A. Etnier, B. J. Freeman, B. R. Kuhajda, R. L. Mayden, H. W. Robison, S. T. Ross, and W. C. Starnes. 2000. Diversity, Distribution, and Conservation status of the native freshwater fishes of the southern United States. Fisheries, Conservation. 25(10):7-29.

Williams J. D. 1975. Systematics of the percid fishes of the subgenus Ammocrypta, with descriptions of two new species. Bull. Ala. Mus. Nat. Hist. 1:1-56.