The Iowa Darter Etheostoma exileBy Frederick A. Copes
reprinted from American Currents, Nov.-Dec. 1986
The Iowa darter is a member of the perch family, Percidae, subfamily Luciopercinae, and is an excellent aquaria fish. No major life history studies of this species were found in the literature. Carlander (1941) reported meristics of the Iowa darter. Winn (1955, 1958 A, 1958 B) and Lutterbie (1976) studied the reproductive behavior of the Iowa darter.
Areas of Study
Habitat and Behavior
The Iowa darter is generally not a schooling species except during the spawning period when females and smaller males formed schools. Iowa darters were found in or under shelter much of the time, making observation difficult. Individuals were found scattered throughout the aquatic vegetation and under shelter in all habitats of slow moving streams. In the Tomorrow River, Wisconsin, three specimens were collected from tinder rocks in a riffle. The Iowa darter was also found to aggregate in areas of' good shelter and under banks. Iowa darters observed in swift currents were behind rocks or other physical shelter.
Iowa darters, when undisturbed, remained quietly on the bottom with the pelvic and pectoral fins braced and the caudal region curled to one side or the other. When alarmed, they would swim (dart) forward 6 to 24 inches and usually assume a position on the bottom and on several occasions they burrowed into debris.
Young-of-the-year Iowa darters were found scattered on the bottom in vegetated pools and lateral depressions of streams and in shallow vegetation in lakes. In August, 1968 over 100 young-of-the-year were counted in a one square meter area of a sand bottom cattle crossing in Sand Creek. They were I to 3 inches apart. When alarmed, they darted in all directions and became scattered over a 3 or 4 square meter area.
Iowa darters were observed to be active throughout the day. Activity appeared to increase in the late afternoon. Temperature changes appeared to have little effect on their activity. The Iowa darters were most active during periods of increasing or decreasing flow.
The Iowa darters were generally the first fish to move into temporarily flooded areas. They were seen entering recently flooded areas before the water temperature had increased from the daily minimum, and were found scattered throughout the vegetation of the temporarily flooded areas. Many Iowa darters were trapped in lateral depressions in Sand Creek by decreasing stream flow in July, 1969.
Some Iowa darters were observed in runs in November and December, but most Iowa darters aggregated under the banks and shelter of runs and smaller pools during the winter.
Table 1. Stomach contents of Iowa darters collected from Sand Creek, expressed in percent frequency of occurrence and estimated percent of total volume (in parentheses).
L = larvae, N = nymph, A = adult
Feeding Habits and Food
In an aquarium, Iowa darters fed on small sucker fry, young guppies, mosquito larvae, rotifers, ostracods, amphipods, small oligochaetes, daphnia, dried commercial foods and bits of hamburger.
The contents of the stomachs of 100 Iowa darters, collected periodically from July, 1968 to September, 1969, were examined. Aquatic insects made up 64.7%, amphipods 14.6%, and animal remains 14.1% of the total volume of food consumed and the remaining 6% was composed of leeches, ostracods, copepods, gastropods, rotifers, and fish eggs (Table 1). The stomachs of 12% of the Iowa darters examined were empty. Iowa darters collected from Wyoming averaged 4.2 food items per stomach, while those from Wisconsin averaged 4.8 food items. Aquatic insect larvae made up 47%, copepods 24%, animal remains 16.1%, amphipods 9.2%, and rotifers 3% of the total volume of food consumed by the age-class 0 fish (Table II). The compositions of stomach contents of Iowa darters collected in Wisconsin and Wyoming were not the same (Table II). The differences in the composition of stomach contents of fish collected in Wisconsin and Wyoming were apparently the result of differences in the abundance of various aquatic organisms and drift organisms.
Table II. Stomach contents of Iowa darters collected from Wyoming and Wisconsin, expressed in percent frequency of occurrence and estimated percent of total volume (in parentheses).
L = larvae. N = nymph
The contribution each food item made to the diet of the Iowa darter varied throughout the year. The changes in diet composition, frequency of occurrence, and per cent contributed by each food item, can be seen in Table I. Changes in the composition of the diet represented changes in abundance and availability of food items. The Iowa darter is best described as an insectivore. Beckman (1952) reported that the food of the Iowa darter was principally small insect larvae and small crustacea. Simon (1951) listed its food as small insect larvae.
Most male and female Iowa darters were found to have been sexually mature at age 1. Sexually mature males were collected from April 12 to July 25. Sexually mature females were collected from April 27 through July 22. The largest collections of sexually mature Iowa darters were collected from May 25 to July 1. Collections made before and after this period usually contained only one or two sexually mature specimens. Most females collected after July I were spent.
Larger sexually maturing male Iowa darters underwent a color change in April. The sides of the males developed 9 to 11 vertical green lateral bands; the color of the 10 vertical red or orange lateral bands intensified; the bases of the pelvic and anal fins became bright green; and the spinous dorsal developed a band of red or orange and a band of green. Sexually maturing and mature age I males did not undergo a color change. Some larger females developed a red band in the spinous dorsal and reddish vertical bands on the sides. The females did not have any green coloration and the reds were not as intense as those of the males.
Males were observed guarding territories, presumably nesting territories, on June 6, 16, and 20, 1969 in Sand Creek. The territories appeared to be about one foot square located along the shore of a vegetated run in 4-6 inches of water with a current velocity of 1 to 2 feet per second. Winn (1958 A and B) described the territories and territorial behavior of the Iowa darter in detail. Two territorial males were observed attacking intruding Iowa darters, presumed males, on June 16 in Section 2. Sexually mature males were very territorial in Aquaria.
The actual spawning act was not observed in Wyoming or Wisconsin. Winn (1958 A and B) found that when a ripe female entered a larger male's territory, she would stop on the bottom. The male then mounted her with his pelvic fins in front of the female's spinous dorsal fin and his caudal peduncle curved around so that it was beside the female's caudal region. The anal and caudal fins of the males were on the same side of the female's caudal peduncle. Then there was simultaneous vibration of both sexes concomitant with the laying of eggs and their fertilization. The male then dismounted. He found that females mated with one to several males and 3 to 7 eggs were laid per time, usually on fibrous clumps of earth or roots and occasionally in sand or gravel.
Winn (1958 A) observed Iowa darters spawning in an aquarium in roots, algae, gravel, and once on the blade of Vallisneria sp.
Schools of Iowa darters in all states of sexually maturity were observed below the beaver and irrigation dam in Section 2 periodically from May 20 to June 20. They were believed to be spawning fish. Winn (1958 A) reported hundreds of spawning Iowa darters below a dam. He reported that there was a relaxation of the territorial behavior and males mounted males as well as females. The large concentration of Iowa darters observed below the dams in Section 2 indicated that the Iowa darters migrated upstream to spawn. Jaffa (1917) reported Iowa darters spawning from April 22 to June 1 in Dry Creek near Boulder, Colorado when water temperatures were 50 to 60o F. He believed spawning occurred in pools in masses of debris and algae.
Age and Growth
Scales were laid down by the time the Iowa darters had grown to 25 mm in length. The scales of age-class 0 Iowa darters were found to have 4 to 12 circuli in September, 1968 and 1969.
No scales from Iowa darters examined for age in September, 1968 and 1969 had more than two annuli, and the fish were ranked in age-classes 0, 1, and 2. Apparently few, if any, Iowa darters live longer than through four summers in Sand Creek.
Table III. Growth and population structure of the Iowa darter in Sand Creek, based on a sample of 328 fish collected by chemically treating 800 feet of stream in Sand Creek 2, September, 1969.
There was no overlap between the range of lengths of each succeeding age-class (Table III). Data obtained from Iowa darters collected in October and November, 1968 and in April and May, 1969 indicated that little or no growth occurred after the first of September. Therefore, the ranges of the lengths in Table III for age-class 0, 1, and 2 Iowa darters in September applied to age-classes 1, 2, and 3 respectively in the spring prior to the formation of the new annulus. The increments of length and weight calculated for the September fish sample represent the annual increments of growth for each age-class.
The annual increment of weight increased from .45 g the first year to 1.1 g the second year and decreased the third year to .7 g, whereas the annual increment of length decreased with each year of life (Table III). The females were slightly larger than the males. Winn (1958 B) found that spawning females were larger than the males. Trautman (1957) reported that the young-of-the-year Iowa darters were 25 to 45 mm in length in October and adults were usually 45 to 63 mm in length in October. The largest specimen he found was 67 mm in length. The largest Iowa darter collected in this study was a 3 year old female which was 76 mm in length, and the largest male collected was a 3 year old which was 71 mm in length.
None of the scales of Iowa darters collected in May and early June showed the new annulus. The new annulus showed on the scales of 9 specimens collected on July 15.
Coefficient of Condition
Predation and Disease
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Used with permission. Article copyright retained by author.