Darters of the Little River System

Photos by Richard Standage
Forest Fisheries & Aquatic T&E Biologist
Ouachita National Forest


The following descriptions and pictures are intended to help separate the various darters of the Little River drainage. This is not a listing of all darters in the watershed but those found with the leopard darter, a Threatened species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ouachita National Forest, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Cossatot State Park and Natural Area have been conducting snorkeling surveys for the leopard darter since 1992 to monitor the status of the species. Rivers sampled annually include the Little River headwaters, Glover, and Mountain Fork Rivers in Oklahoma, and the Mountain Fork, Robinson Fork of the Rolling Fork and the Cossatot Rivers in Arkansas.

The Darters

Leopard darter (Percina pantherina) is shown below in a side view and with a channel darter, the easiest darter with which it is confused. Leopard darters have very round spots on their sides with very crisp margins. If the spots look like they have been printed with a laser printer, it is a leopard darter. If the spots have ragged edges and are not as solid and dark similar to a low resolution (dot matrix) printer, it is a channel darter. Behaviors of these darters may lend themselves to sort out leopards from channels. Leopards appear to be curious and will actually come looking for you. They will swim away but generally slowly and then will turn back and look. They generally tend to stay up off the bottom a few inches. Channel darters tend to be more "flighty" and when they stop swimming they will settle on the bottom resting on their fins. Leopard darters will be found in slow to no flow areas associated with basketball size rock with little silt and sand. They generally aren't found in areas with extensive bedrock sheets or in fast water (such as riffles) except in the spring during spawning season. They are often be found near weedbeds, mostly water willows, where the substrate is mostly cobble and gravel.

[Picture]: A shot of the Leopard Darter

[Picture]: A Leopard Darter and a Channel Darter

Channel darter (Percina copelandi) (First picture below). This darter has rectangular spots on its lateral line and spots almost grading into saddles on its back. When viewed up close, the spots all have diffuse margins. The darter is generally viewed out in the open and in contact with the bottom.

Johnny darter (Etheostoma nigrum)  (Second picture below)This darter is in the foreground with a channel darter behind it. Note the W- and X- shaped markings on the side of the johnny darter and the markings that look like bars across the back of this darter. The markings on the sides are less distinct on the sides of the johnny darter than the channel darter when viewed from underwater. The bars on the back of the johnnny darter are more distinctive than the channel darter saddles on the back.

[Picture]: The Channel darter

[Picture]: The Johnny darter

Logperch (Percina caprodes) is shown below in a side view. This species is commonly called a sand pike and may also be found in reservoirs. Note the vertical bars with no “U’s”. It also has the caudal spot but only a light horizontal band on the nose that does not extend to or past the eye. There is a light vertical band through the eye. The head has a more bulbous nose with the mouth slightly subterminal or back under the tip of the snout. Up close, the mouth almost has a “sneer” look to it. They are generally found over bottoms of much finer material including silt and sand.

[Picture]: Logperch darter

Click on image for a larger view.

Orangebelly darter (Etheostoma radiosum) (pictured below). This darter may be dark or light colored and is often seen under rocks with only the front part of its body sticking out. It is more laterally compressed than the other darters with which it shares the rivers.

[Picture]: The Orangebelly Darter

In summary, the darter with the dark round spots with crisp margins that swims just up off the bottom and is found in basketball and larger sized rock is probably the leopard darter. The darter staying in contact with the bottom, with more rectangular spots on the sides with diffuse margins and no barring on its back is probably a channel darter. The darter with the most diffuse side markings but with bars on its back and is found in gravels, sand and fines probably is a johnny darter. The darter sticking its nose out from under a rock is probably an orangebelly darter. The only darter with bars on its sides that looks like it is sneering at you is likely a logperch.

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