The Percidae is a family containing three subfamilies and approximately 250 species within eleven genera of perciform fishes found mostly in freshwater and brackish waters of the Northern Hemisphere. Most are found in the Nearctic realm. It is one of the largest families in North America, making up about one-fifth of all fish biota, only outnumbered by the Cyprinidae. There are also some Palearctic (Eurasian) species in the genera Gymnocephalus (four species), Percarina (two species), Romanichthys (single species), and Zingel (four species). The family includes the perches and their relatives, with some well-known species such as the ruffe, sauger, walleye, and three species of perch. However, much smaller fishes restricted to North America known as darters are also an integral part of this family and include the vast majority of the species.

In Arkansas, there are four genera of percids and more than forty species. The darters (in three genera) are native only east of the Rocky Mountains. Most are from 2.5 to 10 cm (1 to 4 in.) in length. The freckled darter (Percina lenticula) of the drainage systems of the Mobile Bay, Pascagoula, and Pearl rivers in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi is the biggest of the darters, reaching 20 cm (7.9 in.) in length and 70 g (2.5 oz.) in weight. The least darter (Etheostoma microperca) is one of the smallest darters in North America and is Arkansas’s smallest darter. This species rarely gets larger than 38 mm (1.5 in.) in length and 0.5 g (less than 0.02 oz.) in weight.

The largest percid is the European pike perch or Zander (Sander lucioperca), with a maximum total length of up to 120 cm (47 in.). It is very widely distributed across Eurasia, occurring in the drainages of the Aegean, Aral, Baltic, Black, Caspian, and North Sea basins. The all-tackle world record is a specimen caught in 2016 in Switzerland that weighed 11.5 kg (25 lbs., 4 oz.). In North America, two percid species, the sauger (Sander canadense) and walleye (S. vitreus), are also prized by anglers. The all-tackle world record sauger was caught in 1971 from North Dakota and weighed 3.9 kg (8 lb., 12 oz.); the Arkansas state record sauger was caught in 1976 in the Arkansas River and weighed 3.6 kg (6 lbs., 12 oz.). The all-tackle world record walleye was caught in Tennessee in 1960 and weighed 11.3 kg (25 lbs.); the Arkansas state record walleye was from Greers Ferry Lake (Cleburne and Van Buren counties), caught in 1982 and weighing 10.2 kg (22 lbs., 11 oz.). The saugeye also occurs in the some of the larger state lakes and is a hybrid created by crossing a female walleye with a male sauger. A state record saugeye was caught in 2012 on Lake Frierson (Greene County) and weighed 4.1 kg (9 lbs.). The all-tackle world record saugeye was caught in Ohio in 2001 and weighed 5.8 kg (12 lb., 13 oz.).

More than 40 species of darters occur in Arkansas, including those in the genera Ammocrypta (sand darters, two species), Percina (roughbelly darters and logperches, twelve species), and others in the genus Etheostoma (smoothbelly darters, twenty-six species). Of the darters in the state, five species are endemic and occur nowhere else on Earth. They include the beaded darter (E. clinton), strawberry darter (E. fragi), yellowcheek darter (E. moorei), paleback darter (E. pallididorsum), and Ouachita darter (Percina brucethompsoni).

Examination of the fossil history of the Percidae has revealed that the earliest fossils are from the Eocene age (38 million years ago). Examples are known from sedimentation in a group of intermountain lakes in three basins along the present-day Green River in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. Modern genera like Perca and Sander are represented in the upper Oligocene (23 to 25 million years ago) of Eurasia but were not reported in North America prior to the Pleistocene (2.6 million years ago to 11,700 years ago).

This family is characterized by a greater or lesser degree of armor about the head, produced by the presence of teeth or spines on the cheeks and opercles (gill covers) or their edges, and by two narrow bands of numerous close-set (palantine) teeth on the sides. Also, many percid fish have a heart-shaped plate of vomerine teeth on the roof of the mouth. The shape of these fish is, to some degree, slender and laterally compressed. Their scales are generally ctenoid and well-developed, and a lateral line is present, although incomplete in some species. Dorsal fins are separate or narrowly joined spinous and soft dorsal rays. There are one to two anal spines; the second is usually weak. Pelvic fins are thoracic, and there is a single spine as well as five soft rays in the pelvic fin. There is a wide range of vertebral counts, which number from thirty-two to fifty.

Percid fish are known to be among the most beautiful of the freshwater fishes due to their bright chromatic coloration in male breeding colors (brown, red, orange, and yellow are the predominant tints). Two of the more colorful darters in Arkansas are the orangethroat darter (E. radiosum) and rainbow darter (E. caeruleum). Breeding males are characterized by bright orange coloring that is broken up with blue-green spots or stripes.

The most useful morphological characteristic used to distinguish Percina darters from Ammocrypta and Etheostoma darters is the presence of one or more modified (strongly toothed) and enlarged scales between the pelvic fin bases of both sexes in the former genus. In addition, the midline of the venter of Percina spp. males also has a row of enlarged and modified scales and is usually naked in females. Also, the anal fin of Percina is usually almost as large as the soft dorsal fin but is usually much smaller than the soft dorsal of other darters. Both of these genera of darters differ from Ammocrypta in having a deeper and well-scaled body.

Percids inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including slow- and fast-moving creeks and rivers, springs, swamps, and lakes. Many darters are found in upland streams of the Ouachitas and Ozarks, but some are strictly lowland forms, and some even occur in both upland and lowland aquatic sites. Ammocrypta spp. prefer the lower reaches of moderate-sized rivers where they are found in moderate to strong current over a sand or fine gravel substrate. There is a considerable diversity in habitat preference in Etheostoma spp. and Percina spp. Sauger occur in moderate to large rivers, and walleye are found in large impoundments as well as some headwater streams. For example, a fairly successful walleye fishery was established in Lake Ouachita (Garland County).

In terms of feeding and food habits, nearly all darters feed on aquatic insect larvae, small crustaceans, and other invertebrates. Sauger and walleye, however, are predators, with adults feeding on fish and the young on a variety of invertebrates, including small crustaceans, aquatic insects, and sometimes small fry of fish.

In general, perches exhibit a wide range of reproductive behavior. Most Arkansas darters spawn in two or three months during the year. In general, percids exhibit six categories of spawning behaviors based on the mode of egg deposition: (1) attaching, (2) broadcasting, (3) burying, (4) clumping, (5) clustering, and (6) stranding. Except for categories four and six, all Arkansas percids (except perhaps for the endangered E. moorei, which may be an egg clumper) follow one of the other four categories. Egg attaching involves depositing eggs individually on plants or rocks. In addition, females select the spawning site, and once complete, the male abandons the eggs, leaving them with little or no parental care. At least eight species of Etheostoma from the state follow this reproductive tactic. Clustering eggs involves concentrating eggs in a single layer on undersides of rocks, which are guarded by the male. Only two darters, the greenside darter (E. flabellare) and johnny darter (E. nigrum), use this method. Burying eggs is similar to broadcasting, except the gametes are released just below the substrate surface as in all Percina in the state as well as several species of Etheostoma. Little to no parental care and territoriality occurs. In Arkansas, only the largest percids, S. canadense and S. vitreus, discharge their eggs and sperm over rocks or plants.

A percid from Europe and northern Asia, the ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernuus), has been reported from Lake Superior (Minnesota) where it likely hitchhiked to North America via ballast water from transatlantic ships. Like many invasive species, it is reproducing faster than other native species in the lake. The yellow perch (Perca flavescens) is a freshwater perciform fish native to much of North America but not Arkansas. A specimen was collected from the Trimble Creek arm of Bull Shoals Lake (Marion County) in 1999. The yellow perch was reportedly stocked in Arkansas in 1918; however, until the 1999 report, there had been no subsequent reports of its capture in the state.

A wide variety of parasites have been reported from percids worldwide. In Arkansas, several species have been reported to harbor monogenes, digenetic trematodes (including new species of Plagioporus), and acanthocephalans.

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Chris T. McAllister
Eastern Oklahoma State College

Last Updated: 01/14/2020