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Carolina pygmy sunfish

Elassoma boehlkei

  • Taxon: Fish
  • Range: North Carolina, South Carolina
  • Status: At-risk species

The Carolina pygmy sunfish is a member of the family Elassomatidae, a family of small secretive fish containing six known species found only in the southeastern United States. Often locally abundant and believed to be currently stable, the Carolina pygmy sunfish has a narrow range.


Carolina pygmy sunfish range in length from 20 to 32 mm (0.8 to 1.3 inches). This sunfish lacks a lateral line, has relatively large eyes, an upturned mouth and a rounded caudal fin. Males of the species display alternating iridescent blue and black bars along their sides. The bars on the females alternate between dark brown and light brown.


The Carolina pygmy sunfish inhabits slow moving waters of ponds, ditches and streams in the Coastal Plain. The species prefers to hide among submerged and emergent aquatic vegetation.


Carolina pygmy sunfish forage in all portions of the water column and opportunistically feed on aquatic invertebrates.

Historical range

The Carolina pygmy sunfish is endemic to the Waccamaw River sub-basin in the Lumber/Lower Pee Dee River drainage in North Carolina (Columbus and Brunswick counties) and South Carolina (Horry and Georgetown counties) and three creeks in the Santee drainage in northeastern South Carolina (Richland and Kershaw counties). The Santee population is genetically distinct from fish in the Waccamaw basin.

Current range

The Carolina pygmy sunfish is limited to tributaries of the Waccamaw and Santee Rivers in North and South Carolina. The species occurs in two areas in the Waccamaw River drainage, and one in the middle Santee River drainage. In the upper Waccamaw of North Carolina the species occurs in Juniper Creek, which joins the Waccamaw downstream of Lake Waccamaw in Brunswick and Columbus counties, and in a roadside ditch that drains into Big Creek, which is a tributary to Lake Waccamaw, Columbus County.

In the lower Waccamaw in South Carolina, the species occurs in old rice field ditches off Jericho Creek in the Samworth Wildlife Management Area near Georgetown. In the Santee River in South Carolina, the species occurs adjacent to Big Pine Tree Creek near Camden. A small number of additional populations may occur in these general areas, including in the Lumber and Cape Fear drainages in North Carolina and in additional tributaries ditches to the Waccamaw in South Carolina.

A map showing populations in the Lumber/Waccamaw and Santee basins in central and eastern South Carolina and southern North Carolina.
Carolina pygmy sunfish range. Map by NCWRC.

Conservation challenges

The isolation of this sunfish makes it extremely vulnerable to development, pollution and habitat alterations. Urbanization has been associated with local disappearances. Some populations may be at risk of over-harvesting by private aquarists.

Partnerships, research and projects

Survey efforts by NCWRC staff, NOAA Fisheries, and Three Oaks Engineering consultants, supported by Service funds are helping us better understand distribution and population status in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Protected lands along the Waccamaw River in South Central North Carolina.
Protected lands within the Waccamaw River sub-basin in NC. Map by NCWRC.

Riverbanks Zoo currently has a propagation and maintenance program of representative populations of Carolina Pygmy Sunfish.

Educational materials have been developed to raise public awareness of non-game species and their ecological importance to the natural history of South Carolina’s aquatic habitats.

Subject Matter Experts

Federal Register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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