Lepomis macrochirus




Type Locality:

“Ohio River” (Rafinesque 1819).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name:

Lepomis, Greek, meaning “scaled gill cover”; macrochirus, Greek, meaning “large hand”, perhaps in reference to the body shape (Pflieger 1975).



Lepomis macrochira: Rafinesque 1819:420.

Ichthelis incisor: Nelson 1876:37.

Lepiopomus macrochirus: Jordan 1878.

Lepomis macrochirus: Forbes 1884:68.

Lepomis pallidus: Forbes 1884:67; Large 1903:25; Forbes and Richardson 1908:257-259.



Maximum size: 405 mm TL (Lee 1980).


Life colors: Dark spot on posterior part of dorsal fin; opercle not margined with scarlet (Hubbs et al 1991). Sides of head and chin bluish; back olivaceous to brown; sides bluish green shading ventrally to brownish orange or pinkish, with 5-9 distinct vertical bars; breast yellowish; abdomen yellowish white; fins olivaceous; opercular flap mostly black, sometimes with an iridescent blue anterior edge. Breast of breeding males copperish orange; head and body with greenish or bluish metallic overtones (Sublette et al. 1990).


Counts: 3 anal fin spines; 10-12 anal fin rays; fewer than 55 lateral line scales; 6-13 dorsal fin spines; 6 or 7 branchiostegals (Hubbs et al. 1991); 11-12 dorsal rays; 12-13 pectoral rays (Ross 2001).


Body shape: Deep bodied, laterally compressed (Ross 2001); body depth usually contained two to two and one-half times in standard length (Hubbs et al 1991).


Mouth position: Terminal, oblique (Sublette et al. 1990).


External morphology: Opercle flexible; gill rakers reaching at least to base of second below when depressed; pectoral fins long and pointed, upper pectoral fin rays much longer than lower; pectoral fin contained 3.5 or fewer times in SL; supramaxilla absent or shorter than breadth of maxilla; maxillary width less than suborbital; lateral line present (arched upward anteriorly; Ross 2001); scales ctenoid (Hubbs et al.1991). Sexes may be differentiated by the more conspicuous genital papilla of the female (McComish 1968).


Internal morphology: Intestine well differentiated; pyloric caeca present; silvery peritoneum (Goldstein and Simon 1999). Palantine teeth are usually absent (Hubbs et al. 1991; Ross 2001).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Occurs naturally in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains (Hubbs et al. 1991). Originally restricted to western and central North America where it ranged from coastal Virginia to Florida, west to Texas and northern Mexico, and north from western Minnesota to western New York; widely transplanted elsewhere in North America (Lee 1980).


Texas distribution: Statewide (Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) listed the following drainage units for distribution of Lepomis macrochirus 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: Lakes, ponds, rivers, and creeks (Lee 1980). In Brazos River, Texas, species rarely found in river channels, but abundant in oxbow lakes (Zeug et al 2005). One of the most abundant species collected from five stations on the mainstem of Sister Grove Creek (Trinity River basin), Texas (Matthews et al. 1996). 


Mesohabitat: Inhabits shallow, warm, slow-flowing waters, often with abundant aquatic vegetation (Lee 1980). Occurring primarily in pools and backwaters, L. microchirus was sparsely but widely distributed throughout the Little River drainage (Brazos River, Texas), except that it was absent in all collections from the Blackland Prairie (Rose and Echelle 1981). In Lake Texoma (Texas and Oklahoma), this species was abundant along shores in clearer parts of lake; common in the tributaries and tail waters (Riggs and Bonn 1959). Younger fish utilize areas with cover while older fish seek more open water, generally resulting in lack of competition for food between size classes (Bianchi 1984; Mittelback 1984). Peterson and Ross (1991) note occurrence of species in waters with salinities of up to 10 ppt.



Spawning season: In Texas, peak gonadal development was reached around mid-April, spawning continued well into September (Schloemer 1947); March – September spawning reported by Estes (1949). Breder and Rosen (1966) note spawning from April – October. In Florida, spawning takes place at water temperatures of 21-32 degrees C (Clugston 1966).


Spawning location: Nest spawners; Polyphils; this nesting species is not particular in choice of substrates and may spawn over gravel, sand, clay, or detrital nests (Simon 1999). Nests usually placed in area free of plants and with a sand or gravel bottom. Males prepare nest by sweeping away silt and sand with tail so that coarser substrata (gravels) are exposed (Avila 1976); coarser particles provide interstitial spaces for the yolk-sac larvae and may function as a protective shelter (Ross 2001).


Reproductive strategy: Guarders (Simon 1999). Lepomis microchirus nest in colonies of 9 to 15 (Breder and Rosen 1966). Spawning males were more aggressive than non-spawning males, often leaving the nest, which provided opportunities for other males to enter nest and engage female. In contrast to some sunfishes, males feed while defending their territory. Simultaneous polygamous spawning is natural, but rarely occurs (Avila 1976). In Florida, Clugston (1966) noted community spawning, with nests located very close together at depths of 457-914 mm. Males court females by rushing out toward them, then returning rapidly to the nest, producing a series of distinctive grunts during this display. Males may be attracted to areas of spawning by odor (Gerald 1971). Additional mating tactics have been described by Dominey (1980; 1981) and Gross (1982).


Fecundity: Fertilized eggs average 1.09-1.40 mm in diameter (Merriman 1971). In Texas, females spawned an average of 5 times a year, with a 120 mm female spwning about 80,000 eggs a year (Estes (1949). Ulrey et al. (1938) reported females 2 years of age produced more than 3800 eggs; those at 4 years, more than 19,000. In Deep Lake, Michigan, this species produced an average of nearly 18,000 fry per nest (Carbine 1939).


Age at maturation: Generally spawns first at one year of age, but as early as four months of age under favorable conditions (Swingle and Smith 1943).




Longevity: Applegate et al. (1967) reported that fish do not live much beyond their fifth year. The oldest age reported from scale reading was year 11; life span apparently greater in the northern U.S. (Carlander 1977).


Food habits: Generalized wide spectrum feeder; actively feeding during daylight hours, with a minor feeding peak in the morning and a major peak in the evening (Carlander 1977; Sarker 1977). Feeding location determined by balance between abundance of food source and risk of exposure to predators; L. microchirus feeds in open water or vegetation, choosing the area that provides the greatest energy return, as relative abundances of zooplankton and aquatic insects associated with plants vary (Mittelbach 1981). Mittelbach (1984) demonstrated that individuals undergo pronounced shifts in both habitat and food items as they grow due to changes in vulnerability to predation. Competition between size classes is generally avoided as younger fish utilize areas with cover while older fish seek more open water (Bianchi 1984; Mittelbach 1984). Selection of foraging area is also affected by water temperatures, with fish preferring a temperature of 30 degrees C (Wildhaber and Hall 1988). Larvae and juveniles of 5-10 mm in length frequently ingest Cladocerans and copepod nauplii (Werner 1969; Beard 1982). Individuals reaching 20 mm have varied feeding habits, primarily consuming Cladocera (Chydorinae) and adult copepods and insects (mainly chironomids; Beard 1982). The primary diet of adults in various water bodies is comprised of aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fish, although zooplankton serves as the main food item in other bodies of water (Mittelbach 1984; Carlander 1977). This species also ingests aquatic vegetation including algae (Carlander 1977; Sublette et al. 1990).  Based on the following data, Goldstein and Simon (1999) list first and second level trophic classifications as invertivore and drift; trophic mode listed as water column/surface: In Canada, populations primarily consumed insects, crustaceans, and plant material, with 50% of food volume consisting of chironomid larvae (Keast and Webb 1966); in late summer, when insects were not as abundant, 22% of diet was plant material (Moffett and Hunt 1943; Goldstein and Simon 1999). The fish louse, Argulus, has been found in bluegill stomachs, suggesting individuals may perform “cleaning” function on infected fish (Carlander 1977).


Growth: In the southeast, individuals reach 48.3-88.9 mm TL, 83.8-132.1 mm TL, 101.6-160.0 mm TL, 121.9-182.9 mm TL, and 150.0-188.0 mm TL after years 1-5, respectively (Applegate et al. 1967). A study of L. macrochirus populations in Lakes Nasworthy and Bastrop, Texas, indicated that early growth of individuals was above average when compared to populations in other lakes in the more northern part of the U.S., but relative size decreased at later annuli, this may have resulted from warm temperatures. Females grew faster than males in both lakes (Serns and Strawn 1975). Growth rates are highest at summer water temperatures of 30-31°C (Beitinger and Magnuson 1979).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Lepomis macrochirus most similar to Lepomis humilis (orangespotted sunfish; Branson et al. 1962) and Lepomis microlophus (redear sunfish), but differs from these species in having a distinct spot at the base of the soft dorsal fin; it differs also from the L. microlophus in having long and slender gill rakers and from L. humilis in lacking the elongate sensory pores on the preopercle margin (Ross 2001). Species hybridizes with Lepomis auritus, L. cyanellus, L. gibosus, L. gulosus, L. humilis, L. megalotis, L. microlophus, L. punctatus; artificial hybrids with Pomoxis annularis and P. nigromaculatus (Carlander 1977).


Host Records

L. macrochirus host to Gyrodactylus goerani, G. macrochiri (Hoffman et al 1964; Rawson et al 1973; Harris et al 2004), Dactylogyrus aureus (Mizelle and McDougal 1970), Posthodiplostomum minimum (Lewis and Nickum 1964; Meade and Bedinger 1967), Tricodina (Carlander 1977), Eocollis arcanus (Acanthocephalan; Meade and Harvey 1968).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

Parasite fauna of this species well known in Texas and may be utilized to monitor historical and present day health of watershed ecosystems (Bhuthimethee et al. 2005). Species has commonly been used for research in aquatic biology and ecotoxicology (Touart 1988). Pound for pound, this species is one of the best fighting and best tasting fishes (Ross 2001). Seasonal hooking mortality rates were estimated for Lepomis macrochirus caught in Choke Canyon and Cedar Lake reservoirs, in Texas. Results showed mortality to be significantly higher in summer than in winter, which in addition to high fishing pressure, high exploitation, and high catch-and-release rates, may significantly affect L. macrochirus populations (Coble 1988; Muoneke 1992). Species is important in pond management (Carlander 1977). Species impact as predators of crustaceans and insects is most impressive, as a population may eat six times its own weight during a single summer (Gerking 1962).


[Additional literature noting collection of this species from Texas locations includes, but is not limited to the following: Bonham (1946); lower Rio Grande (Robinson 1959; Edwards and Contreras-Balderas 1991); Neches and Trinity Rivers (Avise and Smith 1974); Devil’s River (Harrell 1978); upper San Marcos River (Hays Co.; Underwood and Dronen 1984); Dolman (1990); Sister Grove Creek (Meador and Matthews 1992); Pecos River (Rhodes and Hubbs 1992); Dumont and Dennis (1997).]



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