Picture by Chad Thomas, Texas State University-San Marcos



Aphredoderus sayanus

pirate perch



Type Locality

Fishponds, Harrowgate, “Philadelphia”, Pennsylvania (Gilliams 1824).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

From the Greek aphod, meaning “excrement,” and dere, meaning “throat,” from the position of the anus; sayanus, named for Thomas Say, an entomologist (Pflieger 1997).



Scolopsis sayanus Gilliams 1824:81

Aphredoderus sayanus Hay 1881:501, 1883:64; Hildebrand and Towers 1928:125; Cook 1959:160 (Ross 2001).



Maximum size: 144 mm TL (Lee 1980).


Coloration: Monotone tan to black dorsally, black speckles on white abdomen; black bar on distal end of caudal peduncle; intense black pigments in fins.  Live individuals with purple sheen. Both breeding males and females iridescent, predominate coloration violet and purple, occasionally light copper, green, or silver; at times breeding adults are black or nearly black (Hardy 1978).  


Counts: Specimens from the Sabine River, Gulf Coast of Texas, and Red River had counts ranging from 2-3 anal fin spines, 3-4 dorsal fin spines, 10-14 dorsal fin rays; 10-13 pectoral fin rays, and 43-56 lateral line scales (Boltz and Stauffer 1993). 6-7 anal rays (Mansueti 1963).


Body shape: Body more or less cylindrical, blunt forward, somewhat compressed behind (Hardy 1978).


Mouth position: Terminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


External morphology: Vent and urogenital tract of larval fish originally located immediately anterior to anal fin, migrating forward until reaching the jugular position in adult fish (Mansueti 1963). Single dorsal fin with both spines and rays; opercle with sharp spine; edge of preoprecle strongly serrate; lateral line incomplete or absent (Hardy 1978); ctenoid scales on body and cheeks (Smith 1979).


Internal morphology: Ratio of digestive tract to total length: DT 1.2-1.6 TL (Goldstein and Simon 1999). Jaws, vomers, palatines, and pterygoids covered with fine rows of teeth (Hardy 1978).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Ranges widely through the Atlantic slope, Gulf Coast, and

Mississippi Valley streams (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Texas distribution: Primarily in eastern Texas from the Red River southward through the lower Brazos Basin (Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) listed the following drainage units for distribution of Aphredoderus sayanus in the state: Red River (from the mouth upstream to and including the Kiamichi River), Sabine Lake (including minor coastal drainages west to Galveston Bay), Galveston Bay (including minor coastal drainages west to mouth of Brazos River), Brazos River, Colorado River.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

Currently stable in southern drainages (Warren et al. 2000). McLane (1955) noted that the species was relatively rare at any given locality, except during periods of low water when as many as 24 specimens were found concentrated in small weedy pools of Florida swamps (St. Johns River system).


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Lakes, ponds, quiet pools and backwaters of low gradient streams (Lee 1980).


Mesohabitat: Backwaters of low gradient streams with mud or sandy substrates; usually associated with aquatic plants and organic debris mud to sand bottoms (Gunning and Lewis 1955; Lee 1980), in situations where there is much protection from currents, wave and wind action (McLane 1955). In Village Creek (Neches River, Texas), species preferred shallow water with macrophytes and leaf litter; collected from the channel edge during summer and from backwaters during fall (Moriarty and Winemiller 1997). Habitat indicator type for this species in the Sulphur River, Texas: pool, pool-bank snag, pool-channel snag, pool-snag complex, pool-edge, pool-vegetation (Gelwick and Morgan 2000; Osting et al. 2003). In southern Illinois, this species was found in low-gradient, muddy areas having much woody debris (in ditches) to small, clear streams with rocky substrates; typical hiding places were undercut banks with root masses, but A. sayanus was also found under rocks (Poly and Wetzel 2003). Occupied highly vegetated areas possessing fine substrata and slow current speeds, in Black Creek, southestern Mississippi (Ross et al. 1987). Collected in heavily vegetated, calm or gently flowing waters, in Tennessee (Parker and Simco 1975). In headwater coastal plain streams of central Louisiana, fish were associated with woody debris; selecting woody cover types characterized by pools, undercut banks, and leaves (both benthic and suspended), during daylight hours in the summer (Monzyk et al. 1997). Larval fish <14 mm TL were collected in limnetic areas in the Atchafalaya River Basin, Louisiana (Fontenot and Rutherford 1999). Species occasionally enters brackish water (Hardy 1978), and has been recorded at maximum salinity of 10.15 ppt (Keup and Bayless 1964).



Spawning season: In Florida, October – December (McLane 1955). Major spawning period in the Atchafalaya River Basin, Louisiana, is February – March (12.6-22.8°C; Fontenot and Rutherford 1999). Murdy and Wortham (1980) reported spawning during the first two weeks of April, in Virginia. In southern Illinois, females were gravid in March, April, and early May, and eggs and larvae were present in April to early May (Poly and Wetzel 2003). Spawning occurs throughout May, in Illinois (Forbes and Richardson 1908; Smith 1979; Hardy 1978).


Spawning habitat: Eggs were found in masses of fine tree roots, in streams (Poly and Wetzel 2003). In aquaria, species preferred soft, fibrous materials, especially aquarium filter media, but also deposited eggs in detritus; eggs were deposited in gravel only when other substrates were not available (Poly and Wetzel 2003). Poly and Wetzel (2003) placed A. sayanus in a newly-named guild, “phytophils” [plant spawners; A.2.1 in Balon (1981) classification], defined by gametes being injected into interstitial spaces of a substrate matrix, including detritus, root masses, and possibly other vegetation. Fletcher et al. (2004) reported that A. sayanus deposited and fertilized eggs in underwater root masses of primarily woody riparian plants and occasionally of aquatic macrophytes. Species previously thought to be a gill chamber brooder, with the female releasing the eggs along a ventral groove that travels to the gill cavity for hatching (Martin and Hubbs 1973; Simon 1999), and Fontenot and Rutherford (1999) noted the apparent release of adhesive eggs over leaf litter and woody debris.


Reproductive strategy: According to Poly and Wetzel (2003), A. sayanus is a transbranchioral spawner – gametes of both sexes are passed directly from the urogenital pore through the branchial and buccal (oral) cavaties. Species tentatively classified by Poly and Wetzel (2003) as a nonguarder, brood-hider [categories in Balon (1981)]. Poly and Wetzel (2003) observed fish in aquaria and reported two basic behaviors in pre-spawning males: 1) lateral display with an occasional slow undulation of the body and 2) rapid trembling of the male’s body with head oriented toward spawning substrate; further observations showed that both sexes nip and push snouts against the spawning substrate matrix; the female thrusts her head into the substrate when prepared to deposit eggs and the male assumes a parallel position (ventral-lateral); opercula of the female are flared as eggs are extruded from the urogenital pore, then eggs are directed to the branchial cavity (likely via two grooves leading there from the urogenital pore); eggs are passed through the orobranchial cavity during repeated opercular movements, protruding intermittently from the posterior of the brachial cavity; eggs are ejected from the orobranchial cavity through the mouth and into the spawning substrate matrix during the opercular movements; male expels a large cloud of sperm into the substrate as the eggs are ejected through the female’s mouth; as with the eggs, the sperm are passed through the orobranchial cavity of the male. Fletcher et al. (2004) reported that females thrust heads into sheltered canals of underwater root masses and release eggs; males congregate at these sites, entering the narrow canals headfirst to release sperm; under this unique nesting condition, the forward-shifted urogenital pore may facilitate spawning; no evidence of extended parental care was found; fish formed their own nesting canals, or utilized burrows created by aquatic macro-invertebrates and salamanders; males defended sites by body-plugging sites after spawning.


Fecundity: Females 35-80 mm in length contained 129-160 eggs, ranging from 0.5-0.75 mm in diameter (McLane 1955). Fertilized eggs are white, clear, 1 mm in diameter, with single oil droplet <0.4 mm diameter; incubation period 5-7 days, at 19-20°C (Martin and Hubbs 1973).


Age at maturation: At age 1 (Mansueti 1963).


Migration:  NA


Longevity: 4 years (Shepherd and Huish 1978); possibly up to 5 years (Hall and Jenkins 1954).


Growth and population structure: Average length of a population in Oklahoma is 56 mm TL at age 1, 85 mm TL at age 2, 102 mm TL at age 3, and 116 mm TL at age 4 (Hall and Jenkins 1954). In a coastal plain stream of North Carolina, females were more numerous and grew faster in their 2nd and 3rd years than did males (Shepherd and Huish 1978).


Food habits: Invertivore/carnivore; feeding on small aquatic insects and small fish (Goldstein and Simon 1999). In Pine Hill Swamp, Illinois, major food items were chironomids, amphipods, and various aquatic insects (Gunning and Lewis 1955). In North Carolina, frequently consumed food items included Cladoceran (fish 10-29 mm TL fed heavily on this item), aquatic Diptera larvae, Isopoda, and Amphipoda (Shepherd and Huish 1978).  In Tuckahoe Creek (James River), Virginia, insects composed 80% of food (dipteran larvae dominating diet; Flemer and Woolcott 1966). In the St. Johns River system, Florida, principal diet consisted of aquatic insect larvae, nymphs, and small crustaceans; data strongly indicated nocturnal feeding (McLane 1955). Parker and Simco (1975) also reported nocturnal feeding.


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Only living member of family.  Small individuals often confused with juvenile sunfishes; however, juvenile sunfish have greater number of dorsal spines (>5) and lack the serrated preopercle. Aphredoderus sayanus differs from Elassoma zonatum (banded pygmy sunfish) in having ctenoid scales as opposed to cycloid scales (Ross 2001).


Host Records

Gyrodactylus aphredoderi (Trematoda: Monogenea), reported from Alabama (Rogers and Wellborn 1965). Clinostomum marginatum (Trematoda), reported from Illinois (Hopkins 1933).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

Although this species may be caught on hook and line and exists successfully in captivity, it is not valued as either a sport fish or an aquarium fish (Poly 2004).


[Additional literature noting collection of this species from Texas locations includes, but is not limited to the following: Baughman (1946); Champ et al. (1973); Evans and Noble (1979); Kleinsasser and Linam (1987); Linam and Kleinsasser (1987); Linam et al. 1994); Gelwick and Li (2002); Morgan (2002); Winemiller et al. (2004).]



Balon, E.K. 1981. Additions and amendments to the classification of reproductive styles in fishes. Environmental Biology of Fishes 6(3/4):377-389.

Baughman, J.L. 1946. An interesting association of fishes. Copeia 1946(4):263.

Boltz, J.M., and J.R. Stauffer, Jr. 1993. Systematics of Aphredoderus sayanus (Teleostei: Aphredoderidae). Copeia 1993(1):81-98.

Champ, M.A., J.T. Lock, C.D. Bjork, W.G. Klussmann, and J.D. McCullough, Jr. 1973. Effects of Anhydrous Ammonia on a Central Texas pond and a review of previous research with ammonia in fisheries management. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 102(1):73-82.

Cook. F.A. 1959. Freshwater fishes in Mississippi. Mississippi Fame and Fish Commission, Jackson. 239 pp.

Evans, J.W., and R.L. Noble. 1979. The longitudinal distribution of fishes in an East Texas stream. American Midland Naturalist 101(2):333-343.

Flemer, D. A., and W. S. Woolcott. 1966. Food habits and distribution of the fishes of Tuckahoe Creek, Virginia, with special emphasis on the bluegill, Lepomis m machrocirus Rafinesque. Chesapeake Sci. 7(2):75-89.

Fletcher, D.E., E.E. Dakin, B.A. Porter, and J.C. Avise. 2004. Spawning behavior and genetic parentage in the pirate perch (Aphredoderus sayanus), a fish with an enigmatic reproductive morphology. Copeia 2004(1):1-10.

Forbes, S.A., and R.E. Richardson. [1908]. The Fishes of Illinois. Illinois State Laboratory of Natural History. cxxxi + 357 pp.

Fontenot, Q.C., and D.A. Rutherford. 1999. Observations on the reproductive ecology of pirate perch Aphredoderus sayanus. Journal of Freshwater Ecology 14(4):545-550.

Gelwick, F.P., and M.N. Morgan. 2000. Microhabitat use and community structure of fishes downstream of the proposed George Parkhouse I and Marvin Nichols I reservoir sites on the Sulphur River, Texas. Report to the Texas Water Development Board. 124 pp.

Gelwick, F.P., and R.Y. Li. 2002. Mesohabitat use and community structure of Brazos River fishes in the vicinity of the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir. Report to the Texas Water Development Board. 50 pp.

Gillams, J. 1824. Description of a new species of fish of the Linean genus Perca. J. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phil. 4:80-82.

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. 671 pp.

Gunning, G.E. and W.M. Lewis. 1955. The fish population of a spring-fed swamp in the Mississippi bottoms of southern Illinois. Ecology 36(4):552-558.

Hall G.E. and R.M. Jenkins. 1954. Notes on the age and growth of the pirate perch, Aphredoderous sayannus, in Oklahoma. Copeia 1954(I):69.

Hardy, J.D. 1978. Development of Fishes of the Mid-Atlantic Bight, Volume III, Aphredoderidae through Rachycentridae. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Solomons, Maryland. 392 pp.

Hay, O.P. 1881. On a collection of fishes from eastern Mississippi. Proc. U.S. Nat. Mus. 3:488-515.

Hay, O.P. 1883. On a collection of fishes from lower Mississippi valley. Proc. Bull. U.S. Fish Comm. 3:488-515.

Hildebrand S.F. and I.L. Towers. 1928. Annotated list of fishes collected in the vicinity of Greenwood, Mississippi, with descriptions of three new species. Bull. U.S. Bur. Fish. 43(2):105-136.

Hopkins, S.H. 1933. Note on the life history of Clinostomum marginatum (Trematoda). Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 52(2):147-149.

Hubbs, C., R.J. Edwards, and G.P. Garrett. 1991. An annotated checklist of the freshwater fishes of Texas. The Texas Journal of Science, Supplement 43(4):1-56.

Keup, L., and J. Bayless. 1964. Fish distribution at varying salinities in Neuse River Basin, North Carolina. Cheasapeake Science 5(3):119-123.

Kleinsasser, L.J., and G.W. Linam. 1987. Fisheries use attainability study for Pine Island Bayou (Segment 0607). River Studies Report No. 6. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin. 19 pp.

Lee, D.S. 1980. Aphredoderous sayannus (Gilliams), Pirate perch. pp. 484 in D. S. Lee, et al. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. N. C. State Mus. Nat. Hist., Raliegh, i-r+854 pp.

Linam, G.W., and L.J. Kleinsasser. 1987. Fisheries use attainability study for Oyster Creek (Segment 1110). River Studies Report No. 3. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin. 13 pp.

Linam, G.W., J.C. Henson, and M.A. Webb. 1994. A fisheries inventory and assessment of Allens Creek and the Brazos River, Austin County, Texas. River Studies Report No. 12. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Austin. 13 pp.

Mansueti, A.J. 1963. Some changes in morphology during ontogeny in the pirateperch, Aphredoderous s. sayannus. Copeia 1963(3):546-557.

Martin, F.D., and C. Hubbs. 1973. Observations on the development of pirate perch, Aphredoderus sayanus (Pisces: Aphredoderidae), with comments on yolk circulations patterns as a possible taxonomic tool. Copeia 1973(2):377-379.

McLane, W.M. 1955. The fishes of the St. Johns River system. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Florida, 361 pp.

Monzyk, F.R., W.E. Kelso, and D.A. Rutherford. 1997. Characteristics of woody cover used by brown madtoms and pirate perch in coastal plain streams. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 126:665-675.

Morgan, M.N. 2002. Habitat Associations of fish assemblages in the Sulphur River, Texas. Masters Thesis, Texas A&M University, College Station. 58 pp.

Moriarty, L.J., and K.O. Winemiller. 1997. Spatial and temporal variation in fish assemblage structure in Village Creek, Hardin County, Texas. Texas Journal of Science 49(3):85-110.

Murdy, E.O., and J.W.E. Wortham, Jr. 1980. Contributions to the reproductive biology of the eastern pirate perch, Aphredoderus sayanus. Virginia Journal of Science 31(1/2):20-27.

Osting, T., R. Matthews, and B. Austin. 2003. Analysis of instream flows for the Sulphur River: Hydrology, hydraulics, and fish habitat utilization, Volume II – Appendices. Report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas Water Development Board.

Parker, N.C., and B.A. Simco. 1975. Activity patterns, feeding and behavior of the pirateperch, Aphredoderus sayanus. Copeia 1975(3):572-574.

Pflieger, W.L. 1997. The Fishes of Missouri. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City. 372 pp.

Poly, W.J. 2004. Family Aphredoderidae Bonaparte 1846 – pirate perches. California Academy of Sciences Annotated Checklists of Fishes No. 24. 5 pp.

Poly, W.J., and J.E. Wetzel. 2003. Transbranchioral spawning: novel reproductive strategy observed for the pirate perch Aphredoderus sayanus (Aphredoderidae). Ichthyol. Explor. Freshwaters 14(2):151-158.

Rogers, W.A., and T.L. Wellborn, Jr. 1965. Studies on Gyrodactylus (Trematoda: Monogenea) with descriptions of five new species from the Southeastern U.S. The Journal of Parasitology 51(6):977-982.

Ross, S.T. 2001. The Inland Fishes of Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson. 624 pp.

Ross, S.T., J.A. Baker, and K.E. Clark. 1987. Microhabitat partitioning of southeastern stream fishes: temporal and spatial predictability. Pp. 42-51 in: Matthews, W.J. and D.C. Heins (eds.) Evolutionary and Community Ecology of North American Stream Fishes. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 310 pp.

Shepherd, M. E. and M. T. Huish. 1978. Age, growth, and diet of the pirate perch in a coastal plain stream of North Carolina. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 108:457-459.

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.

Smith, P.W. 1979. The Fishes of Illinois. University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 314 pp.

Warren, M.L. 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 25(10):7-29.

Winemiller, K.O., F.P. Gelwick, T. Bonner, S. Zeug, and C. Williams. 2004. Response of oxbow lake biota to hydrologic exchanges with the Brazos River channel. Report to the Texas Water Development Board. 59 pp.