Ictiobus niger

black buffalo



Type Locality

Ohio River (Rafinesque 1820).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Ictiobus: bull-like fish; niger: black (Ross 2001).



Catostomus niger Rafinesque 1820:56.

Ictiobus niger Cook 1959:81.



Maximum size:  929 mm TL (Carlander 1969).


Coloration: Blue-gray to dark brown above, light brown laterally, and yellowish white below (Miller and Robison 2004). Normally the darkest and most slaty-colored of the buffalofishes; light colored only when collected from very turbid waters. Spring males are often blackish (Trautman 1981). Piller et al. (2003) reported that the body coloration of breeding male and female fish from Citico Creek, Tennessee was blue-gray in color; venter was white or cream colored; all paired and median fins were darker in color than the rest of the body.


Teeth count: About 195 per arch (Becker 1983).


Counts: Fewer than 45 lateral line scales; 22-30 dorsal fin rays (Hubbs et al. 1991); fewer than 60 gill rakers in the first arch (Miller and Robison 2004); 8-10 anal fin  rays; 15-16 pectoral fin rays; and 9-11 pelvic fin rays (Ross 2001).


Body shape: Body more elongate, greatest depth contained 2.6 to 3.3 times in standard length; thickness of head contained fewer than five times in standard length; eye nearer tip of snout than back of head; head gradually slenderer than body (Hubbs et al.1991).


Mouth position: 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).


External morphology: Distance from posterior tip of maxillary to front of mandible greater than eye length (about twice eye length in large adults); subopercle broadest at middle, subsemicircular; cheek shallow and foreshortened (distance from eye to posteroventral angle of preopercle three-quarters of distance to upper corner of gill slit); dorsal fin base more than one-third standard length (Hubbs et al. 1991). Entire body of nuptial males from Citico Creek, Tennessee were covered by small whitish tubercles, most pronounced on cheek and opercular region; tubercles tended to be smaller, less numerous on posterior half of body than on anterior half; body tuberculation most pronounced below lateral line, with scales containing 10-16 tubercles; above the lateral line, tubercles smaller and less numerous; tubercles present on all fins; fin tuberculation most pronounced on anal and caudal fins, with tubercles running along entire length of anterior rays (rays 1-6), but confined to distal portions of more posterior rays; only anterior portion of dorsal fin tuberculate (Piller et al. 2003).


Internal morphology: Gut much elongated, with loops running parallel to body axis (Becker 1983; Goldstein and Simon 1999). Pharyngeal teeth short, narrow, and fragile, about 195 per arch; well developed crown of tooth with cusp at anterior edge; arch moderately strong, with large honeycomb spaces on anterior edge; the symphysis short, on moderately long stems of the arch (Becker 1983).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Occurs throughout the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and adjacent basins (Hubbs et al. 1991).


Texas distribution: Scattered records known from throughout the state, including from the Rio Grande, Colorado, Brazos, Sabine, and Red basins (Hubbs et al 1991). Early taxonomic difficulties in recognizing this species, its unusually disjunct distribution pattern, and its apparent rarity in the state of Texas suggest a possible introduction of this species at many localities (Conner 1977), or many intermediate records have been published that are misidentifications of the common smallmouth buffalo, I. bubalus (Shute 1980; Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) list the following drainage units for distribution of Ictiobus niger in the state: Red River (from the mouth upstream to and including the Kiamichi River), and the Colorado River.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

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


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Often found in strong currents and large rivers (Shute 1980). Species seems to favor flowing waters to a greater extent than do Ictiobus bubalus (smallmouth buffalo) or I. cyprinellus (bigmouth buffalo; Cross 1967; Becker 1983; Miller and Robison 2004); preferred habitat of I. niger seems to be intermediate between the other two buffalo species (Trautman 1981). Species occurs in large rivers, back waters, and sloughs (Ross 2001); although generally uncommon in the lower Mississippi River (Baker et al. 1991), fish have been collected in coves adjacent of the main channel (Ross 2001). In Lake Texoma, Oklahoma and Texas, species was very rare, but was the most common of the genus in the tailwaters (Riggs and Bonn 1959). Taken from Mountain Fork River and was numerous in cutoff lakes sampled in the Little River drainage area, McCurtain Co., Oklahoma; found over bottoms which were composed of one or more of the following: silt, gravel, mud, detritus, bedrock, rubble, and fallen timber; collected from clear to turbid waters (Finnel et al. 1956).


Mesohabitat: Species found in water of varying turbidity over a wide variety of bottoms (Becker 1983). In Kansas, species collected in deep, fast riffles where river channel narrows (Cross 1967). In Ohio, occasionally abundant in turbid, mud-bottomed, shallow, overflow ponds and sloughs (Trautman 1981). In the Sulphur River, Texas, species was most abundant in pool-vegetation habitat (Gelwick and Morgan 2000). Pigg and Gibbs (1995) noted that Ictiobus niger preferred a stronger current than other buffalo fishes, and reported collection of fish from the mainstem of the North Canadian River near Wetumka, Oklahoma in deeper, swift currents.



Spawning season: In Citico Creek, Tennessee, spawning occurs yearly in April, and is often 4-5 days in duration (Piller et al. 2003). Probably occurs in April and May, although a tuberculate male was captured from the lower Wisconsin River in mid-June (Becker 1983). In Mississippi, Yeager (1936) observed spawning in April.


Spawning location: Lithopelagophils, rock and gravel spawners with pelagic free embryos (Simon 1999). In Citico Creek (Little Tennessee River system), a small upland stream in Tennessee, fish spawned in the upper portion of water column and adhesive eggs were broadcast over a variety of substrates from gravel to bedrock; spawning mainly occurred in runs and pools (75% of observations), but sometimes occurred in deep riffles (25% of observations; Piller et al. 2003); eggs found over the stream bottom even in cascading riffles, suggesting that they were carried some distance downstream from the spawning site. In the Mississippi River, spawning observed in shallow water along margin of a flooded swamp (Yeager 1936). Perry (1976) reported spawning in brackish ponds with salinities of 16-18 mg/l.


Reproductive strategy: Non-guarders; open substratum spawners (Simon 1999). Piller et al. (2003) observed spawning in Citico Creek, Tennesee: species predominately spawned in trios of one female, and two males, and did not prepare substrate or employ territorial defense. Prior to spawning males were evenly spaced throughout spawning area, while the largest females were mainly concentrated in slack areas along shore. Spawning was initiated by female swimming away from bank and moving among males at mid-channel, with males eventually swimming alongside the female. Female swam upward in the water column while eggs were released, this action drawing additional males to the group (from 5-10). Vigorous splashing was produced as backs and tails of the group of fish broke the water surface, and as the fish quivered as males attempted to crowd in near to the female. On occasion, males were observed to dive over the top of the spawning group. Spawning act was brief, lasting from 2-4 seconds. The group swam to the stream bottom and slowly dispersed after the spawning act, with males and females resuming pre-spawning positions in the stream. A small number of males remained near the female for a time, nudging the female as if to induce more egg laying. No evidence of post-spawning mortality was observed. In the Mississippi River, spawning was observed in shallow water: individuals were active at the water surface splashing, leaping from the water, and making quick forward movements over short distances (Yeager 1936) in a manner very similar to that described as the “spawning rush” for a similar species, Ictiobus cyprinellus (bigmouth buffalo; Ross 2001).


Fecundity: Small number of specimens examined by Piller et al. (2003) suggested that fecundity is substantially more than 9,000 eggs (number of eggs that remained in the ovaries of a mostly spent female) and that all of the eggs are spawned. Fertilized eggs are demersal, adhesive; eggs average 1.8-2.4 mm in diameter; hatching occurs in 24-36 hours at 19-24 degrees C (Ross 2001).


Age/Size at maturation: In the south, age 2 (Perry 1976). In Illinois, Barnickol and Starrett (1951) reported smallest ripe female to be 470 mm (18.5 in) long (Becker 1983).


Migration: In a study of Ictiobus niger from Citico Creek, Tennessee, fish migrated from a reservoir into a small, swift-flowing, cool-water stream to spawn (Piller et al. 2003).


Longevity: 24 year-old fish reported from Illinois (Carlander 1969).


Food habits: Consumes plankton, insect larvae, and vegetation; snails and other small mollusks are diet items, often in large quantities (Shute 1980; Miller and Robison 2004). In Arizona reservoirs, main food item was the introduced Asiatic clam (Corbicula manilensis), while blue-green algae, diatoms, and crustaceans were also ingested (Minkley et al. 1970).


Growth and Population structure: In the Southeast, growth fairly rapid with fish averaging 134 mm TL after their first year, and 236 mm TL, 330 mm TL, 399 mm TL, 468 mm TL, 504 mm TL, 563 mm TL, and 589 mm TL after years 2-8, respectively (Carlander 1969; Ross 2001). In Citico Creek, Tennessee, the sex ratio appeared to strongly favor males, as they dominated spawning bouts by as much as 10 to 1. A collection of 12 specimens (not spawning at time of capture) yielded 9 males and 3 females, though this may have been due to females entering and leaving the creek at different times during the spawning run (Piller et al. 2003).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Ictiobus niger is most similar to I. bubalus (smallmouth buffalo), but differs in body depth proportions (more than 2.9 versus less than 2.8 times into SL; Ross 2001). Young I. niger, less than 305 mm, are difficult to distinguish from I. bubalus (smallmouth buffalo; Trautman 1981). However, Etnier and Starnes (1993) listed ratios of measurement that may be useful in differentiating I. niger and I. bubalus (niger listed first): eye diameter in head length 5.1-7.4 vs. 4.4-5.9; eye diameter in snout length 2-2.5 vs.1.5-2; maximum head width in standard length 4.7-5.5 vs. 5.2-6.1; maximum body depth in standard length 2.9-3.4 vs. 2.4-2.8. I. niger differs from I. cyprinellus (bigmouth buffalo) in having a subterminal (versus terminal) mouth and in having lower GR counts on the lower limb of the first arch (less than 35 versus more than 40; Ross 2001). Moore (1968) reported hybridization between I. niger and I. bubalus (smallmouth buffalo) in some impoundments; offspring were not able to be identified. Experimental I. niger X I. cyprinellus hybrids reported (Stevenson 1964; Hollander and Avault 1975).


Host Records

Trematoda (1), Cestoda (2), Acanthocephala (1; Hoffmann 1967). Cestoda: Glaradacris confusus; Trematoda: Lissorchis gullaris, Nematobothrium texomensis (Mayberry et al. 2000).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

Although apparently not an important factor limiting the reproductive success of Ictiobus niger, Piller et al. (2003) reported that Ambloplites rupestris (rock bass) was one of four species found to heavily predate I. niger eggs, in a Tennessee stream. Crossman and Nepszy (1979) reported the first Canadian record of I. niger captured in Lake Erie, in June 1978. This species often referred to by commercial fisherman as “rooters” due to their bottom-feeding habits (Ross 2001).



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