Elassoma alabamae | Spring Pygmy Sunfish


Alabama is second only to Tennessee in the number of freshwater fish species found in a state, home to over 306 native freshwater species. These diverse aquatic habitats also support thirteen species of fish that only occur within the state of Alabama. These unique species are found in limited areas of river basins, particular watersheds, or springs. One of the fish species that is unique to Alabama is the Spring Pygmy Sunfish (Mettee et al. 2001).


In the fall of 2008, Conservation Fisheries initiated a propagation program for the Spring Pygmy Sunfish and we produced almost 250 young in 2009. We have maintained this pygmy sunfish in small numbers in past years and can easily maintain pygmy sunfish in small quarters. The primary objective of this project is to maintain a captive ark population as a means of insuring that the species is not extirpated by a catastrophic event. We have developed efficient propagation protocols to produce more than a small number of Spring Pygmy Sunfish. Thus, it is reasonable and feasible to implement population augmentation in the future, if needed.


The Spring Pygmy Sunfish is currently found in only one location in the Tennessee Valley region of north Alabama, the Beaverdam Creek watershed that drains into Wheeler Reservoir in Limestone County. Spring pygmy sunfish have twice been reintroduced to nearby Pryor Spring, but each time have subsequently been extirpated (Mettee and Pulliam 1986, Mike Sandel personal communication). The first Spring Pygmy Sunfish was discovered in Cave Spring, Lauderdale County. Spring Pygmy Sunfish were feared to be extinct after Pickwick Reservoir filled and changed the habitat (Mettee et al. 2001).


Unlike some rare species that are difficult to find even in their preferred habitat, Spring Pygmy Sunfish are often abundant. Their preferred habitat consists of thick concentrations of aquatic vegetation such as native coontail (Ceratophyllum). High densities of these unique fish also occur in shallow, heavily vegetated margins of the spring run below a lake on Beaverdam Creek (Mettee et al. 2001). Recent sampling efforts extended the known range downstream in Beaverdam Creek to the impounded section of Wheeler Reservoir (P. W. Shute, 1994, personal communication). 


Spring Pygmy Sunfish rarely grow larger than an inch. Males and females of the Spring Pygmy Sunfish exhibit substantially different color patterns, a condition known as sexual dimorphism. The Spring Pygmy Sunfish is also unusual in that it lives little more than a year. Spawning occurs from March through August with eggs being laid on vegetation. Few adults are seen after spring (Mettee et al. 2001).