Ictiobus bubalus

smallmouth buffalo



Type Locality

Ohio River (Rafinesque 1819).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Ictiobus, Greek, meaning “bull fish;” bubalus, Greek for “buffalo” (Pflieger 1997).



Amblodon bulbalus Rafinesque 1819:421.

Ictiobus bulbalus Hildebrand and Towers 1928:115; Cook 1959:80.



Maximum size: At least 909 mm TL (Carlander 1969).


Life colors: Back dark grey; sides bronze to golden; abdomen yellowish white. Fins grayish brown. Fins darkened during spawning season (Sublette et al. 1990).


Counts: Fewer than 45 lateral line scales; 22-30 dorsal fin rays (Hubbs et al 1991); 9-10 anal rays; 15-18 pectoral rays; 10-11 pelvic rays (Ross 2001); gill rakers fewer than 60 (Crossman and Nepszy 1979); 115-167 pharyngeal teeth (Eastman 1977).


Body shape: Body deeper and narrower, greatest depth contained 2.2 to 2.8 times in standard length; thickness of head contained more than five times in standard length; distance from the posterior tip of maxillary to front of mandible less than eye (about equal to eye in large adults; Hubbs et al. 1991).


Mouth position: Subterminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999). Mouth small and only slightly oblique; upper jaw distinctly shorter than snout; upper lip well below lower margin of orbit; lips thick and coarsely striate (Hubbs et al. 1991). Larvae have terminal mouths (Wrenn 1969).


External morphology: Subopercle broadest at middle, subsemicircular; cheek shallow and foreshortened (distance from eye to postroventral angle of preopercle three-quarters of distance to upper corner of gill slit); eye nearer tip of snout than back of head; head gradually slenderer than body; dorsal fin base more than one-third standard length (Hubbs et al 1991). Mating tubercles present on head of male (Sublette et al. 1990). Sexual dimorphism in number of scales below lateral line, proportion of head depth to standard length, and proportion of length of anterodorsal fin-rays to standard length noted by Phillips and Underhill (1971); however the differences were marginal and may not be exhibited at the population level.


Internal morphology: Gut much elongated, with loops running parallel to body axis (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Wide ranging species native to streams from Pennsylvania and West Virginia west to Montana and south to Mexico (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Texas distribution: Found throughout the state with the exception of the Panhandle

(Hubbs et al 1991). Warren et al. (2000) listed the following drainage units for distribution of Ictiobus bubalus 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, San Antonio Bay (including minor coastal drainages west of mouth of Colorado River to mouth of Nueces River), Nueces River.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

Populations in the southern Unites States are currently secure (Warren et al. 2000).


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Commonly found in reservoirs and large streams (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Mesohabitat: Common in clear waters with modest current (Lee 1980). Dalquest and Peters (1966) report that the most productive habitat for this species is one with abundant aquatic vegetation and a silt bottom. Tolerates high levels of water hardness as found in the lower Pecos River and its tributaries (Cowley and Sublette 1987). Stroud (1967) reported that good reproduction was dependent on a pH level of 6.5-8.5.



Spawning season: Spawns from March – September at 15.5 – 27.5 degrees C, with peak activity in July (Moody 1970; Jester 1971; Padilla 1972; Jester 1973; Lee 1980). In Alabama, spawning occurred from March-May at water temperatures of 13.9-21.1 degrees C (Wrenn 1969).


Spawning location: Lithopelagophils; rock and gravel spawners with benthic larvae that hide beneath stones (Simon 1999). Wrenn (1969) reported spawning in shallow backwater areas. Harlan and Speaker (1951) reported that eggs are deposited at random over the bottom or on vegetation. In New Mexico, spawning occurs primarily over inundated terrestrial vegetation during times of high water level (Moody 1970; Jester 1971).


Reproductive strategy: Non-guarders; open substratum spawners (Simon 1999). Eggs are demersal and adhesive, are broadcast over virtually all substrate types and are unattended by adults (Jester 1971; 1973; Padilla 1972).


Fecundity: Wrenn (1969) estimated 290,000 eggs for fish 546-556 mm TL, whereas MacDonald (1978) estimated 98,630-501,360 for two fish 450 and 838 mm TL. Fecundity, as indicated by estimates of numbers of eggs in gravid fish at Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico, ranged from 79,3000-323,252 eggs with a mean of 197,371; highest mean number of eggs occurred in fish of age 7 and 8 (Moody 1970). Padilla (1972) reported mean number of eggs per female at Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico, to be 163,068. Fertilized eggs average 1.6-2.1 mm (Yeager 1980) to 2.3-2.4 mm in diameter and are demersal and adhesive (Yeager and Baker 1982). Hatching occurred in 96-100 hours at 21.1 degrees C (Wrenn 1969).


Age at maturation: Males, 4-5 years (minimum length of 411 mm TL); females mature after 6 years, (minimum size of 444 mm TL; Wrenn 1969). In Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico, males mature twice as quickly as females, the former becoming adult in one year (Jester 1973).


Migration: In a large reservoir, fish traveled no more than about 4.8 km in any given direction; greatest distance traveled was 43-90 km in 10-12 months (Wrenn 1969).


Longevity: 9 – 18 years (Carlander 1969; Jester 1973; MacDonald 1978; Jackson and Jackson 1989).


Food habits: Invertivore/herbivore; main food items: zooplankton, and attached algae, Chironomidae, Baetidae, and Trichoptera (Goldstein and Simon 1999). Feed largely on bottom material, especially diatoms, dipteran larvae, small crustaceans Copepods, cladocerans, ostracods), bivalve mollusks, bryozoans, and snails; most fish consume large amounts of organic detrius and sand (Walburg and Nelson 1966; Wrenn 1969; Minckley et al. 1970; Tafanelli et al.1971; Ross 2001), and may consume various kinds of attached algae (Chlorophyta and Chrysophyta; McComish 1967), as well. Larvae begin feeding when they are 8-9 mm TL, 105 hours after hatching, feeding near water surface as their mouth position is terminal (Wrenn 1969); young-of-year 35-64 mm TL continue feeding in water column on zooplankton (copepods and cladocerans); fish reaching 250 mm TL shift majority of feeding activity toward bottom organisms in shallow, shoreline areas (McComish 1967).


Growth: Newly hatched larvae are 5-6 mm TL (Wrenn 1969). For fish in an Alabama reservoir, Wrenn (1969) reported average TL for ages 1-13 as 142 mm, 254 mm, 320 mm, 381 mm, 429 mm, 480 mm, 526 mm, 569 mm, 605 mm, 643 mm, 691 mm, 759 mm, and 798 mm, respectively. In Mississippi, average TL for fish ages 4-9: 297 mm, 325 mm, 335 mm, 342 mm, 354 mm, and 394 mm, respectively (Jackson and Jackson 1989).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Subfamily Ictiobinae (Lee 1980); genus most closely related to Carpiodes (Nelson 1948. J. Morphol. 83:225-45; Nelson 1948); status of buffalo suckers clarified by Hubbs (1930). Ictiobus bubalus most similar to Ictiobus niger (black buffalo), with small fishes being particularly difficult to distinguish. Body depth in Ictiobus bubalus goes into SL less than 2.8 times versus greater than 2.9 times in Ictiobus niger. Ictiobus bubalus differs from Ictiobus cyprinellus (bigmouth buffalo) in having a subterminal (versus terminal) mouth. All buffalo (Ictiobus) can be separated from carpsuckers (Carpoides) by the shape of the subopercle bone. Buffalo differ from Cycleptus elongates (blue sucker) by having less than 50 lateral line scales and from all remaining catostomids in having 30 dorsal rays (versus less than 20; Ross 2001). Sublette et al. (1990) notes that Ictiobus bubalus can be distinguished from the river carpsucker (Carpoides carpio) by the semicircular subopercles; linear intestinal loops; and the absence of a nipplelike projection on the lower lip (which characterizes C. carpio); the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) also superficially resembles I. bubalus, but the former possesses two pair of barbels. Natural hybridization with I. cyprinellus reported (Johnson and Minckley 1969). Ictiobus bubalus has been artificially crossed with I. niger (Stevenson 1964).


Host Records

Cestoda (5); Trematoda (2); Nemata (1; Mayberry et al. 2000).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

Smallmouth buffalo used both for human consumption and for pet and livestock feed (MacDonald 1978). Growth of species rapid in farm ponds (Hendricks 1956).



Carlander, K.D. 1969. Handbook of Freshwater Fishery Biology. Volume 1. Iowa State University Press, Ames. 752 pp.

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

Cowley, D.E., and J.E. Sublette. 1987. Distribution of fishes in the Black River drainage, Eddy County, New Mexico. Southwestern Naturalist 32(2):213-221.

Crossman, E.J., and S.J. Nepszy. 1979. First Canadian record of the black buffalo (Osteichthyes: Catostomidae). Canadian Filed-Naturalist 93:304-305.

Dalquest, W.W., and L.J. Peters. 1966. A life history study of four problematic fish in Lake Diversion, Archer and Baylor Counties, Texas. IF Report Series 6.

Eastman, J.T. 1977. The pharyngeal bones and teeth of catostomis fishes. American Midland Naturalist 97(1):68-88.

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.

Harlan, J.R., and E.B. Speaker. 1951. Iowa Fish and Fishing. Iowa State Conservation Comm., 2nd ed. 184 pp.

Hendricks, L.J. 1956. Growth of the smallmouth buffalo in carp ponds. Prog. Fish-Cult. 18(1):45-46.

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.

Hubbs, C.L. 1930. Materials for a revision of the Catostomid fishes of eastern North America. University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Miscellaneous Publications 20:1-47.

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

Jackson, D.C. and J.R. Jackson. 1989. An assessment of buffalo fisheries resources in a Mississippi stream three decades after channelization. Proceedings of the 19th Mississippi water resources conference, March 14-15, 1989, Jackson. 4 pp.

Jester, D.B. 1971. Effects of commercial fishing, species introductions, and drawdown control on fish populations in Elephant Butte Reservoir, New Mexico, pp. 265-285. In: Hall, G.E. (Ed.), Reservoir Fisheries and Limnology. American Fisheries Society Spec. Publ. 8.

Jester, D.B. 1973. Life history, ecology, and management of the smallmouth buffalo, Ictiobus bubalus (Rafinesque), with reference to Elephant Butte Lake. New Mexico State University Agric. Exp. Sta. Res. Rep. No. 273. 80 pp.

Johnson, D.W. and W.L. Minckley. 1969. Natural Hybridization in Buffalofishes, Genus Ictiobus. Copeia, 1969(1):198-200.

Lee, D.S. 1980. Ictiobus bubalus (Rafinesque), Smallmouth buffalo. Pp. 404 in D.S. Lee, et al. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. N. C. State Mus. Nat. Hist., Raleigh, i-r+854 pp.

MacDonald, D.G. 1978. Life history studies of the smallmouth buffalo, Ictiobus bulbalus (Rafinesque), in Watts Bar and Chickamauga Reservoirs, Tennessee. Master's thesis, Tennessee Technical Univ., Cookeville. 55 pp.

Mayberry, L. F., A. G. Canaris, and J. R. Bristol. 2000. Bibliography of parasites and vertebrate host in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas (1893-1984). University of Nebraska Harold W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology Web Server pp. 1-100.

McComish, T.S. 1967. Food habits o fbigmouth and smallmouth buffalo in Lewis and Clark Lake and the Missouri River. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 96(1):70-74.

Minckley, W.L., J.E. Johnson, J.N. Rinne, and S.E. Willoughby. 1970. Foods of buffalofishes, genus Ictiobus, in central Arizona reservoirs. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 99(2):333-342.

Moody, T.M. 1970. Effects of commercial fishing on the population of small mouth buffalo, Ictiobus bubalus (Rafinesque), in Elephant Butte Lake, New Mexico. M.S. Thesis, New Mexico State Univ., Las Cruces.

Nelson, Edward M. 1948. The comparative morphology of the Weberian apparatus of the Castomidae and its significance in systematics. Journal of Morphology 83(2):225-251.

Padilla, R. 1972. Reproduction of carp, smallmouth buffalo, and river carpsucker in Elephant Butte Lake. M.S. Thesis, New Mexico State Univ., Las Cruces.

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

Phillips, G.L., and J.C. Underhill. 1971. Distribution and variation of the Catostomidae of Minnesota. Bell Mus. Nat. Hist., Univ. Minnesota, Occ. Pap. No.10. 45 pp.

Rafinesque, C.S. 1819. Prodrome de 70 nouveaux genres d'animaux découverts dans l'intérieur des Etats-Unis d'Amérique, durant l'année 1818. J. de Physique de Chimie et D'Histoire Naturelle 88:417-429.


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

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.

Stevenson, J.H. 1964. Fish Farming Experimental Station - Stuttgart, Arkansas. U.S. Fish Wildl. Serv. Circular 178:29-100.

Stroud, R.H. 1967. Water quality criteria to protect aquatic life: A summary. Amer. Fish. Soc. Spec. Publ. 4:33-37.

Sublette, J.E., M.D. Hatch, and M. Sublette. 1990. The Fishes of New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 393 pp.

Tafanelli, R., P.E. Mauck, and G. Mensinger. 1971. Food habits of bigmouth and smallmouth buffalo from four Oklahoma reservoirs. Proc. S. E. Assoc. Game Fish Comm. 24:649-658.

Walburg, C.H. and W.R. Nelson. 1966. Carp, river carpsucker, smallmouth buffalo, and bigmouth buffalo in Lewis and Clark Lake, Missouri River. Research Rept., no. 69, Bureau Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D. C.


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.

Wrenn, W.B. 1969. Life history aspects of smallmouth buffalo and freshwater drum in Wheeler Reservoir, Alabama. Proc. S.E. Assoc. Game Fish Comm. 22:479-495.

Yeager, B.L. 1980. Early development of the genus Carpoides (Osteichthyes: Catostomidae). Masters Thesis, Univ. Tennessee, Knoxville.

Yeager, B.L., and J.M. Baker. 1982. Early development of the genus Ictiobus (Catostomidae), pp. 63-69. In: Proceedings of the 5th annual larval fish conference. C.F. Bryan, J.V. Conner, and F.M. Truesdale, eds. March 2-3, 1981. Louisiana State Univ. Press, Baton Rouge.