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NATURAL HISTORY

VERMILION DARTER } Etheostoma chermocki
FAMILY: Percidae

DESCRIPTION: This medium-sized, brilliantly colored darter is about 1.8 to 2.8 inches in length and has complete lateral lines, broadly connected gill membranes, a short head, and a small, pronounced mouth. The fish is distinguished by the reddish-orange color on its lower sides and belly. Males have a bright red spot between the first spines of their upper fin; females’ spots are smaller. Breeding males develop red blotches along the side of the body, just above the midline.

HABITAT: The vermilion darter lives in small to medium-sized streams with gravel riffles and moderate currents. For spawning, the fish requires clean, clear, flowing water and clean rocks, logs, or sand and gravel substrate. It is most common in areas dominated by fine gravel with some coarse gravel or cobble and is generally not found in deeper pools. Vermilion darters are sometimes associated with aquatic vegetation like watercress, pondweed, coontail, and milfoil.

RANGE: The vermilion darter is found only in the Turkey Creek drainage, a tributary of the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in Jefferson County, Alabama. Populations of the fish are sparse and isolated within just 8.7 miles of Turkey Creek, the lowermost reaches of Dry and Beaver creeks, and a spring run of an unnamed spring draining into Beaver Creek along Alabama Highway 79. Sightings at the spring run, where the darter was once common, are rare today.

MIGRATION: This fish has not been known to move outside its small range in the Turkey Creek drainage.

BREEDING: Reproduction probably occurs form March to June, with mean clutch size at about 65 egg cells per female. The only known spawning habitat for vermilion darters is the confluence of Turkey Creek and the runoff from Tapawingo and Penny Springs. Eggs are deposited on clean logs, rocks, or sand and gravel substrate. Spawning darters are promiscuous and do not provide parental care for the eggs.

LIFE CYCLE: No comprehensive life-history studies have been done on the vermilion darter, but it is believed that the species’ life history is similar to other snubnose darter species, in which eggs hatch six to eight days after being deposited and fish become reproductively mature at one year of age.

FEEDING: Vermilion darters are generalist, bottom-feeding insectivores, feeding on the larvae of midges, crane flies, caddisflies, and sometimes microcrustaceans.

THREATS: The greatest threat to the vermilion darter is degradation of water quality and substrate components of its habitat from sedimentation and pollution. It is also imperiled by impoundments, which alter water flow and isolate populations to restrict genetic variation and species viability.

POPULATION TREND: The historic population size of the vermilion darter is unknown. However, a study published in 1999 showed the population to be between 1,847 and 3238 individuals, and by 2003, only 107 individuals could be located.

Photo © Joseph Tomelleri