The Cumberland darter is a small member of the perch family (Family Percidae) that reaches just over 2 inches in length. Its body has a straw-yellow background color with brown markings that form six evenly spaced dorsal (back) saddles and a series of X-, C-, or W-shaped markings on its sides.
During spawning season, the overall body color of breeding males darkens, and the side markings become obscure or appear as a series of blotches.
Little is known about the specific habitat requirements of the Cumberland darter. However, the species is typically observed in low to moderate gradient streams, where it occupies shallow pools or runs with gentle current over sand or sand-covered bedrock substrates with patches of gravel or debris.
The feeding habits of the Cumberland darter are unknown but are likely similar to that of a closely related species, the Johnny darter (E. nigrum). Johnny darters are sight feeders, with prey items consisting of midge larvae, mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae and microcrustaceans.
The Cumberland darter is endemic to the upper Cumberland River system above Cumberland Falls in Kentucky and Tennessee. The earliest known collections of the species were made in tributaries of the Clear Fork of the Cumberland River, Kentucky. The species was later reported from Gum Fork, Scott County, Tennessee. Historical records show that the Cumberland darter was restricted to short reaches of 20 small streams (23 sites) in the upper Cumberland River system in Whitley and McCreary Counties, Kentucky, and Campbell and Scott Counties, Tennessee.
Currently, the Cumberland darter is known from 16 localities in a total of 14 streams in Kentucky and Tennessee.
All 16 current occurrences of the Cumberland darter are restricted to short stream reaches, with the majority believed to be restricted to less than a mile of stream. These occurrences are thought to form six population clusters (Bunches Creek, Indian Creek, Marsh Creek, Jellico Creek, Clear Fork, and Youngs Creek), which are geographically separated from one another by an average distance of 19 stream miles. This species appears to be extirpated from 11 historical collection sites and a total of 9 streams: Cumberland River mainstem, near the mouth of Bunches Creek and Cumberland Falls (Whitley County); Sanders Creek (Whitley County); Brier Creek (Whitley County); Kilburn Fork of Indian Creek (McCreary County); Bridge Fork (McCreary County); Marsh Creek, near mouth of Big Branch and Caddell Branch (McCreary County); Cal Creek (McCreary County); Little Wolf Creek (Whitley County); and Gum Fork (Scott County). Currently, the Cumberland darter is uncommon or occurs in low densities across its range.
Counties Where the Species is Known or Believed to Occur
- Kentucky: McCreary and Whitley counties
- Tennessee: Campbell and Scott counties
The Cumberland darter’s preferred habitat characteristics (low- to moderate-gradient, low current velocity, backwater nature) make it extremely susceptible to the effects of siltation, or the deposit of sediments in freshwater. Sediment has been listed repeatedly by Kentucky Department of Water as the most common stressor of aquatic communities in the upper Cumberland River basin. The primary source of sediment was identified as resource extraction (e.g., coal mining and logging).
Another significant threat to the Cumberland darter is water pollution caused by a variety of types of nonpoint source pollutants, or runoff. Coal mining represents a major source of these pollutants because it has the potential to contribute high concentrations of dissolved metals and other solids that lower a stream’s pH or can lead to elevated levels of stream conductivity.
Other pollutants that may affect the Cumberland darter include domestic sewage (through septic tank leakage or straight pipe discharges); agricultural pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and animal waste; and other chemicals associated with oil and gas development.
Nonpoint source pollutants can cause changes in water chemistry that seriously impact aquatic species. Increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, excessive algal growth, instream oxygen deficiencies, increased acidity and conductivity can all have negative impacts on the health of fish and other river dwelling species.
How you can help
Individuals can do a number of things to help protect freshwater species, including:
- Conserving water to allow more water to remain in streams.
- Using pesticides responsibly, especially around streams and lakes, to prevent runoff into mussel habitats.
- Controlling soil erosion by planting trees and plants to avoid runoff of sediments into freshwater areas.
- Supporting practices for construction and maintenance of unpaved, rural dirt and gravel roads that minimize erosion and connectivity to our rivers and lakes.
Subject matter experts
- Michael A. Floyd, PhD, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Kentucky.
Designated critical habitat
Federal Register notices
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