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A small, brightly colored orange and blue fish in an aquarium.
Information icon Photo by J.R. Shute, Conservation Fisheries, Inc.

Kentucky arrow darter

Etheostoma spilotum


Kentucky arrow darters are small members of the perch family of fish, growing a little longer than 4.5 inches. They thrive in shallow water and spawn just 6 inches from the surface. Like most arrow darters, but unlike most other fish species, males defend their nests. They establish their territories and defend their eggs until they’ve hatched.

During spawning season, males become quite vibrant in color as the species dash around shallow water in an elaborate mating ritual. Historically found in at least 74 streams in the upper Kentucky River, surveys conducted in 2006 were only able to document them in 47 streams.


Kentucky arrow darters can be found in pools or transitional areas between riffles and pools in moderate to high gradient, small to medium streams with rocky substrates. The species is often found near cover such as boulders, rock ledges, large cobble, or woody debris.

A narrow, shallow stream with two forested banks cast shadows on the water.
Kentucky arrow darter habitat in Elisha Creek, Leslie County, Kentucky. Photo by Dr. Mike Floyd, USFWS.


Kentucky arrow darters feed primarily on mayflies, larval blackflies, and midges, with lesser amounts of caddisfly larvae, stonefly nymphs, and beetle larvae. Kentucky arrow darters greater than 70 mm (2.8 in) often feed on small crayfishes.

Historical range

The Kentucky arrow darter occurred historically in at least 74 streams in the upper Kentucky River basin of eastern Kentucky that spanned portions of 6 smaller sub-basins or watersheds: North Fork Kentucky River, Middle Fork Kentucky River, South Fork Kentucky River, Silver Creek, Sturgeon Creek, and Red River. A detailed description of the historical records and their sources can be found in the 2015 Proposed Listing Rule.

Map of the Kentucky arrow darter's historical range in south eastern Kentucky.
historical range map by USFWS.

Current range

Based on surveys completed since 2006, populations of the Kentucky arrow darter can be found in 47 streams across the upper Kentucky River basin in eastern Kentucky. These populations are scattered across 6 sub-basins: North Fork Kentucky River, Middle Fork Kentucky River, South Fork Kentucky River, Silver Creek, Sturgeon Creek, and Red River.

Current populations occur in the following Kentucky River watersheds:

  • North Fork Kentucky River: Troublesome, Quicksand, Frozen, Holly, Lower Devil, Walker, and Hell Creek watersheds
  • Middle Fork Kentucky River: Big Laurel, Rockhouse, Hell For Certain Creek, and Squabble Creek watersheds
  • South Fork Kentucky River: Red Bird River, Hector Branch, and Goose, Bullskin, Buffalo, and Lower Buffalo Creek watersheds
  • Silver Creek: Silver Creek
  • Sturgeon Creek: Travis, Wild Dog, and Granny Dismal Creek watersheds
  • Red River: Rock Bridge Fork of Swift Camp Creek

Counties where this species is known or believed to occur

  • Kentucky: Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Jackson, Knott, Lee, Leslie, Owsley, Perry and Wolfe counties
Map of the Kentucky arrow darter's current range in south eastern Kentucky.
Current species distribution map by USFWS, KSNPC and KDFWR.

Conservation challenges

Habitat for the Kentucky arrow darter has been severely degraded by water pollution and sedimentation originating from surface coal mining, oil and gas exploration activities, residential area development, stream channelization, and deforestation.

Recovery plan

A recovery plan is not available for the species at this time.

Subject matter experts

Designated critical habitat

The Service is designated 38 units of critical habitat, all currently occupied by the darter, consisting of approximately 248 stream miles in the 10 counties where it is found. Of those stream miles, approximately 65 are in federal ownership, 11 are in state ownership, and 172 are privately owned. The critical habitat units include the stream channel within the ordinary high water line. No lands above the ordinary high water line or adjacent uplands have been included in the critical habitat areas . The only major change from what was proposed in October 2015 is the expansion of critical habitat Unit 6 downstream to the confluence of Middlefork Quicksand Creek and Quicksand Creek (an expansion of 1.7 stream miles), bordering Breathitt and Knott Counties. This was done in response to new occurrence information provided on the species.

Under the ESA, critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the darter’s conservation. Although some of the areas within the critical habitat units are located on private land, activities on these lands will not be affected unless they are authorized, funded, or carried out by a federal agency.

Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. If federal funds or authorization are involved in a project in the area, the government agency will need to consult with the Service to help landowners avoid, reduce, or mitigate potential impacts to the darter or to ensure actions do not negatively affect the fish or its critical habitat.

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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