Banded Pygmy Sunfish

The banded pygmy sunfish (Elassoma zonatum) belongs to its own family (Elassomatidae) and the Order Perciformes. It is a diminutive sunfish that is about 25 to 40 mm (1.0 to 1.5 in.) in total length. This fish is endemic to the United States, where it ranges in the Mississippi River drainage from Indiana and Illinois south to Texas and east along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina south to Florida. There are six additional species of Elassoma, including spring pygmy sunfish (E. alabamae), Carolina pygmy sunfish (E. boehlkei), Everglades pygmy sunfish (E. evergladei), Gulf Coast pygmy sunfish (E. gilberti), bluebarred pygmy sunfish (E. okatie), and Okefenokee pygmy sunfish (E. okefenokee). Interestingly, E. zonatum was described by the “Father of American Ichthyology,” David Starr Jordan (1851‒1931), and the type localities were listed as the Little Red River in Arkansas at Judsonia (White County) and the Rio Brazos in Texas.

In Arkansas, E. zonatum is distributed in all the major drainages of the Gulf Coastal Plain lowlands in the eastern and southern part of the state; it is rarely found above the “fall line” (the boundary where the more recent deposits of the plain meet the older, more resistant rocks of the Ouachita Mountains). They are known to occur in creeks within large towns in the southern part of the state such as Nix Creek in Texarkana (Miller County). This small fish occupies eutrophic wetlands such as sluggish streams, natural lakes, ponds, and swamps. It prefers densely vegetated bodies of still, slow-moving waters. It is a secretive, mostly solitary fish that often remains near aquatic vegetation or associated debris and beneath banks.

The largest specimens can reach 47 mm (1.9 in.) in total length, although most are about 24 to 40 mm (1.0 to 1.5 in). Morphological characteristics of E. zonatum include a degenerate lateral line with thirty-one to thirty-six scales in lateral series. There are four to five spines and nine to ten soft rays in the dorsal fin as well as three spines and five to six soft rays in the anal fin. Scales are cycloid, and those on the opercles and cheeks are mostly embedded. Coloration in breeding males includes ten to eleven dark vertical bars and speckling of black with darkened fins and iridescent blue highlights. Juveniles and females are brownish with a purple or pink sheen. There are one or two dark spots laterally present below the origin of the dorsal fin.

Banded pygmy sunfish are diurnal sight feeders that prey on moving microcrustacea supplemented with insect larvae (mostly chironomids and mayfly nymphs), amphipods, isopods, snail eggs, and clams. Predators of E. zonatum include live-bearers (Poeciliidae), the grass pickerel (Esox americanus), and bowfins (Amia calva). Other than these fishes, water snakes (Nerodia spp.) and piscivorous birds are also known to prey on E. zonatum.

Banded pygmy sunfish spawn in the spring, usually from mid-March to early May. No nest is prepared, but males are known to be territorial and mate several times with the same or different females. Females deposit from thirty to about 150 adhesive eggs on submerged aquatic vegetation, particularly hornwort. If it or similar vegetation is not available, eggs are then scattered out on rocky substrate in still water. After the eggs are laid, the male usually remains with the eggs and guards them. He may chase the female away from the nest site, since she may cannibalize the eggs. The eggs, on average, take four to five days before they begin to hatch. Larvae are typically 3.5 to 3.7 mm (0.13 to 0.14 in.) in length, while the juveniles are 8.0 to 8.5 mm (0.31 to 0.33 in.) in length. It takes, on average, about a year for specimens to become sexually mature. The lifespan of E. zonatum is around 2.5 years, with the maximum recorded age at three years.

Several parasites have been reported, including the trematode Rhipidocotyle septapapillata, nematodes Camallanus oxycephalus and Hedrurus sp., and a monogenean, Gyrodactylus heterodactylus. None have been reported from Arkansas E. zonatum.

For additional information:
Barney, R. L., and B. J. Anson. “Life History and Ecology of the Pygmy Sunfish, Elassoma zonatum.” Ecology 1 (1920): 241‒256.

Böhlke, J. E., and F. C. Rohde. “Elassoma zonatum (Jordan), Banded Pygmy Sunfish.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

Harris, P. D., A. P. Shinn, J. Cable, and T. A. Bakke. “Nominal Species of the Genus Gyrodactylus von Nordman 1832 (Monogenea: Gyrodactylidae), with a List of Principal Host Species.” Systematic Parasitology 59 (2004): 1‒27.

Helfman, Gene, Bruce B. Collette, Douglas E. Facey, and Brian W. Bowen. The Diversity of Fishes: Biology, Evolution, and Ecology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Hoffman, Glenn L. Parasites of North American Freshwater Fishes. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Jones, W. J., and J. M. Quattro. “Phylogenetic Affinities of Pygmy Sunfishes (Elassoma) Inferred from Mitochondrial DNA Sequences.” Copeia 1999 (1999): 470–474.

Jordan, David S. “Contributions to North American Ichthyology Based Primarily on the Collections of the United States Museum. II. Part A. Notes on the Cottidae, Etheostomatidae, Percidae, Centrarchidae, Aphredoderidae, Dorysomatidae, and Cyprinidae, with Revisions of the Genera and Descriptions of New or Little Known Species.” Bulletin of the United States National Museum 10 (1877): 1‒68.

Mettee, Maurice F., and Christopher Scharpf. “Reproductive Behavior, Embryology, and Larval Development of Pygmy Sunfish.” American Currents, Winter 1998.

Near, Thomas J., Michael Sandel, Kristen L. Kuhn, Peter J. Unmack, eter C. Wainwright, and Wm. Leo Smith. “Nuclear Gene-Inferred Phylogenies Resolve the Relationships of the Enigmatic Pygmy Sunfishes, Elassoma (Teleostei: Percomorpha).” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 63 (2012): 388‒395.

Page, Larry M., and Brooks M. Burr. Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Quattro, Joseph M., W. J. Jones, and Fritz C. Rohde. “Gene-Gene Concordance and the Phylogenetic Relationships Among Rare and Widespread Pygmy Sunfishes (Genus Elassoma).” Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 18 (2001): 217‒226.

Robison, Henry W., and Thomas M. Buchanan. Fishes of Arkansas. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020.

Sandel, Michael, Fritz C. Rohde, and Phillip M. Harris. “Interspecific Relationships and the Evolution of Sexual Dimorphism in Pygmy Sunfishes (Centrarchidae: Elassoma).” Molecular Phylogenetic and Evolution 77 (2014): 166‒176.

Taber, C. “Spectacle Development in the Pygmy Sunfish, Elassoma zonatum, with Observations on Spawning Habits.” Proceedings of the Oklahoma Academy of Science 46 (1965): 73‒81.

Walsh, S. J., and Brooks M. Burr. “Life History of the Banded Pygmy Sunfish, Elassoma zonatum Jordan (Pisces: Centrarchidae), in Western Kentucky.” Bulletin of the Alabama Museum of Natural History 8 (1984): 31‒52.

Chris T. McAllister
Eastern Oklahoma State College


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