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NATURAL HISTORY

SPRING PYGMY SUNFISH } Elassoma alabamae
FAMILY: Elassomatidae

DESCRIPTION: The spring pygmy sunfish is a small freshwater fish, shorter than two inches in length. Breeding males are usually dark brown, with silver or gold vertical stripes, while females are mottled brown and white, with solid brown on top and cream or white on their undersides. 
                
HABITAT: The spring pygmy sunfish needs an environment with dense, submerged vegetation to provide foraging habitat, refuge from predators, and a place to raise young. The plants the sunfish depends on need stable aquatic environments such as spring pools or spring runs, since without these conditions they are easily replaced by more tolerant surface plants that do not support the plankton that sunfish feed on.

RANGE: This fish is endemic to the Tennessee River in Alabama. The single remaining native population is found in five miles of Beaverdam Creek, its tributaries, and surrounding wetlands within the Beaverdam Spring Complex.

MIGRATION: The species is nonmigratory.

BREEDING:  Spring pygmy sunfish engage in a complex courtship. Eggs are deposited in dense vegetation and are protected by a clear, gelatinous mass. Egg survival is dependent on specific environmental conditions, which limits the species to certain spring habitats. Reproduction can occur whenever conditions allow, with most reproductively active adults observed from March to late August.   

LIFE CYCLE: Most individuals live for around a year and do not survive for a second spawning season.

FEEDING: Using dense vegetation as cover, pygmy sunfish hunt and eat water fleas, copepods, amphipods, isopods and snails. 

THREATS: Because the spring pygmy lives in an extremely confined range, with specific habitat requirements, it’s particularly vulnerable to any environmental changes. The most serious threat to its continued survival is the destruction of suitable habitat caused by urban development of wetlands, degradation of water quality due to agricultural runoff, and reduction of water quantity as a result of pumping. The species is also endangered by the introduction of invasive species.

POPULATION TREND: The spring pygmy has twice been believed to be extinct. Reintroductions to previously extirpated locations have been ultimately unsuccessful, and the species can now only be found in one small, extremely localized population. Previous extirpations have been directly related to environmental changes in the form of habitat loss and pollution.

Photo courtesy Conservation Fisheries, Inc.