Lepomis marginatus

dollar sunfish



Type Locality:

St. Johns River, Florida (Holbrook 1855).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name:

Latin marginatus, “bordered, enclosed with a border,” from margo (stem margin), “border”, in reference to the light-margined gill cover (Ross 2001; Boschung and Mayden 2004).



Pomotis marginatus Holbrook 1855:49.

Lepomis marginatus Cook 1959:181.



Maximum size: 100 mm SL (Bauer 1980).


Life colors: Males with olive-brown back. Sides grade ventrally to orange and are overlain with iridescent blue spots. Each lateral scale has a dark spot, resulting in general dusky appearance. Lateral line is reddish orange. Most fins lightly pigmented; pelvic fins are often more darkly pigmented. Faint orange band may be present along base of the dorsal fin. Opercular flap black, fringed in white, often has rows of blue dashes or spots. Chest is white to orange. Head has short, wavy, iridescent blue lines that extend onto chest; lines may be interrupted, forming dots and dashes. Pupil is dark; iris is orange. Coloration becomes more intense in breeding males. Female and immature fish have a lighter blue-green background color on the back and sides, and sides are flecked with iridescent blue spots. Belly is white or pale orange; fins are lightly pigmented (Ross 2001).


Tooth patch: No teeth on tongue or pterygoids; palantine teeth absent (Hubbs et al 1991).


Counts: 3-5 cheek scales; 12 (rarely 13) pectoral fin rays; 33-40 lateral line scales; 3 anal spines (rarely 2 or 4); 6-13 dorsal fin spines; 6 or 7 branchiostegals (Hubbs et al. 1991); 10-11 dorsal rays; 9-10 anal rays (Ross 2001).


Body shape: Small, 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 (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


External morphology: Anal base convex; opercle produced into a thin flexible projection lying within the opercular membrane; posterior edge of opercle within opercular membrane fimbriate; pectoral fins short and rounded; pectoral fin contained 3.75 or more times in standard length; supramaxilla absent or shorter than breadth of maxilla; maxillary width less than suborbital; lateral line present; scales ctenoid (Hubbs et al 1991).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Species occurs in southern Atlantic coastal drainages from North Carolina to Florida and west to Texas (Hubbs et al 1991); occurs in southeastern coastal drainages from North Carolina to Texas and north into the lower Mississippi River Basin in Kentucky, Arkansas, and extreme southeastern Oklahoma (Bauer 1980).


Texas distribution: Restricted to eastern Texas from the Sulphur and Sabine basins, southward to the Navasota River (Brazos Drainage; Hubbs et al. 1991). Warren et al. (2000) list the following drainage units for distribution of Lepomis marginatus 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.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

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


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: Swamps, sluggish streams (Bauer 1980). Species can reproduce in reservoir habitat, but are apparently unable to permanently coexist with large centrarchids (Micropterus salmoides, the largemouth bass; Lepomis macrochirus, the bluegill; Lepomis microlophus, the redear sunfish) that are common in such areas (Paller et al. 1992).


Mesohabitat: In the Sulphur River, Texas, species strongly associated with edge, channel, vegetation, snag, and pool habitat variables (Morgan 2002). Found in salinity of 3.33% in lower Neuse River Basin, North Carolina (Keup and Bayless 1964). Commonly found in tannin-stained water and mud substratum (Ross 2001).



Spawning season: April – September, in Florida (McLane 1955); May – August, with a peak from late May to early June, in North Carolina (Lee and Burr 1985).


Spawning location: Males build nests in close proximity, with densities of 3-5 nests/m², on hard, sandy bottoms with little vegetation (Lee and Burr 1985).


Reproductive strategy: Males actively defend territories against other males of the same species; neighbor-to-neighbor combat is frequent and many fish show damaged fins. Large males tend to be better able to keep their territories than small males and spawn continuously throughout the season. Ripe females display dark vertical stripes as they enter the nesting area, perhaps as a signal to aggressive males to prevent their attack (Lee and Burr 1985). Success of nest depends upon males guarding eggs and larvae against predators such as other dollar sunfish (Lepomis marginatus), mosquitofishes (Gambusia), and juvenile largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides). Male increases the time he spends guarding nest area, once he has a brood to defend. Males will flee a nest when faced with predation themselves, but will return to the nest far sooner if eggs and/or larvae are present (Winkleman 1996).


Fecundity: 150-200 fry hatch per spawn (Lee and Burr 1985).


Age/length at maturation: Minimum reproductive size is about 60 mm SL, usually reached after 2nd year (Lee and Burr 1985).


Migration: During winter, adults move into deep water, and return to shallow water the following spring (Lee and Burr 1985).


Growth and population structure: Young attain a length of about 10 mm TL in one month. Size classes within a series from western Tennessee collected during August averaged 57 mm TL for age 1 (one scale annulus formed), 75 mm for 2, 83 for 3, and 95 for 4. No young-of-year were present in collection (Etnier and Starnes 1993).


Longevity: 6 years (Lee and Burr 1985).


Food habits: Goldstein and Simon (1999) list first and second level trophic classifications as invertivore and drift, respectively; trophic mode listed as water column/surface; both benthic and surface feeders. In Florida, food items include various aquatic insects and small crustaceans (McClane 1955; Lee and Burr 1985). Tennessee specimens contained much detritus and filamentous algae with a few terrestrial insects (Homoptera, Hymenoptera; Etnier and Starnes 1993).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Closest relative of Lepomis marginatus is the longear sunfish (L. megalotis); these two species placed in subgenus Icthelis (Bailey 1938; Avise and Smith 1974; Bauer 1980). L. marginatus may be separated from L. megalotis by having 3-4 rather than 5-6 scale rows on the cheek, by having generally 12 rather than 14-15 pectoral rays, and by tendency to occur in swamps rather than in flowing streams; L. marginatus usually has spots on the opercular flap, whereas L. megalotis does not (Ross 2001). L. marginatus differs from the redbreast sunfish (L. auritus) in having an opercular flap with light margin versus opercular flap dark to its margin; from the green sunfish (L. cyanellus), and the bantam sunfish (L. symmetricus) in having short, stubby gill rakers versus long and slender; from the warmouth (L. gulosus) in lacking teeth on the tongue; and from all other Lepomis in having a short, rounded pectoral fin (Robison and Buchanan 1988).


Host Records

Cestode: Proteocephalus; Trematoda: Actinocleidus, Actinocleidus unguis, Cledodiscus bedardi, Cleidodiscus chelatus, Crepidostomum cooperi, Haplocleidus furcatus, Homalometron armatum, Macrohaptor hopkinsi, Oncocleidus acuminatus, Oncocleidus ferox, Pisciamphistoma reynoldsi, Posthodiplostomum minimum, Rhipidocotyle septapapillata, Urocleidus variabilis; Acanthocephala: Neoechinorhynchus clyindratum (Bedinger 1967).


Commercial or Environmental Importance




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Bauer, B. H. 1980. Lepomis marginatus (Holbrook), Dollar sunfish. pp. 599 in D. S. Lee, et al. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. N. C. State Mus. Nat. Hist., Raleigh, i-r+854 pp.

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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.

Winkleman, D. L. 1996. Reproduction under predatory threat: Trade-offs between nest guarding and predator avoidance in male dollar sunfish (Lepomis marginatus). Copeia 1996(4):845-851.