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A small, brown and yellow fish with iridescent scales around its gills
Information icon A female spring pygmy sunfish. Photo by Matt Laschet.

Spring pygmy sunfish

Elassoma alabamae

The spring pygmy sunfish is a spring associated fish that is endemic to springs in northern Alabama. It was historically known to occur in springs in North Alabama along the Tennessee River in Limestone and Lauderdale counties. The spring pygmy sunfish was first discovered in Cave Spring in Lauderdale County, Alabama in 1937. In 1938, this site was inundated by the creation of Pickwick Reservoir on the Tennessee River. In 1941, this species was rediscovered in Pryor Spring in Limestone County, Alabama. However, this population also was subsequently considered extirpated (Boschung and Mayden 2004). The spring pygmy sunfish was again considered extinct until its rediscovery in the Beaverdam Spring complex in 1973 by researchers from the University of Tennessee . In 1984, fish from Moss Spring (part of the Beaverdam Spring complex) were reintroduced into Pryor Spring. Unfortunately, this reintroduction effort appears to have failed.

Appearance

The spring pygmy sunfish a small fish that, on average, reaches 11/16” long. Males and females exhibit different coloration. Breeding males are vividly colored. Overall the breeding male is very dark except for vertical, iridescent blue-green bars along the body and iridescent mottling on the cheek. Females are more muted in coloration when compared to the males. In general, females appear mottled with dark olive blotches over a light brown or tan base color. The spring pygmy sunfish is the only member of the genus (Elassoma) to have white to clear windows on the dorsal and anal fins. Furthermore, unlike all other pygmy sunfish (Elasssoma), the spring pygmy sunfish only has three dorsal fin spines (Mayden 1993, Boschung and Mayden 2004).

Habitat

The preferred habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish is colorless to slightly stained spring water, occurring within several components of spring geomorphology including in the spring head (where water emerges from the ground), spring pool water (water pool at spring head), spring run (stream or channel downstream of spring pool), and associated spring-fed wetlands (Warren 2004, pp. 184-185). The species is most abundant at the spring outflow or emergence (spring head) and spring pool area. Species of submergent and emergent vegetation providing important habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish include clumps and stands of Sparganium sp. (bur reed), Ceratophyllum sp. (coontail), Nasturtium officinale (watercress), Juncus sp. (rush), Carex sp. (sedges), Nuphar luteum (yellow pond lily), Myriophyllum sp. (parrot feather), Utricularia sp. (bladderwort), Polygonum sp. (smartweed), Lythrum salicaria (purple loosetrife), and Callitriche sp. (water starwort) (Mayden 1993, p. 11; Jandebeur 1997, pp. 42–44; Sandel 2011, pp. 3–5, 9–11).

Diet

Diet likely consists of small aquatic invertebrates such as amphipods, isopods, and larvae of mayflies, caddisflies, and midges.

Historical range

Historically, this fish was known to occur at two other sites in northern Alabama, one in Limestone County and the other in Lauderdale County. The species decline has been attributed to water pollution, a reduction of water quantity and impoundments. It was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2013.

Current range

For years, the spring pygmy sunfish was only known to exist in a single spring system (Beaverdam Spring/Creek) in the Tennessee River drainage in Limestone County, Alabama. A new population was recently discovered in Blackwell Swamp at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Conservation challenges

The spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat are currently facing the threats of both declining water quality and quantity. Possible excessive groundwater usage, and the resultant reduction of water quantity in the aquifer/recharge areas and decreased spring outflow in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system, is believed to have negatively impacted the spring pygmy sunfish and its habitat. Increased contamination of the recharge area and aquifer from the intensive use of chemicals (i.e., herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers) and possible overgrazing by livestock and land clearing near and within the water systems reduces the vegetation in the spring and increases stormwater runoff within the spring pygmy sunfish’s habitat. Stormwater discharge from agricultural lands compounds the water quality degradation by increasing sediment load and depositing contaminants into surface and groundwater sources. Recently, land use practices have begun to change surrounding spring pygmy sunfish habitat. Land that has been historically used for agriculture is being converted into higher density residential and industrial developments. These large-scale residential and industrial developments can place a different set of environmental stressors (i.e. impervious surfaces and stormwater runoff) on aquatic habitats and potentially reduce water quantity and quality within the Beaverdam Spring/Creek system.

Recovery plan

A recovery plan has not yet been developed.

Partnerships, research and projects

On June 7, 2012, the Service entered into a Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) with a private landowner (Belle Mina Farm, Ltd.) and the Huntsville and North Alabama Land Trust (Land Trust) for the protection of a portion of the only known occupied site for this species (Beaverdam Spring/Creek complex, Limestone County, AL). In 2013, the service entered into two additional CCAAs with private landowners (Greenbriar, LLC and Greenbrier, LLC) and the North Alabama Landtrust.

Subject matter experts

Designated Critical Habitat

In 2012, the Service proposed to designate approximately eight stream miles and 1,549 acres of spring-pool and spring-influenced wetland as critical habitat in the Beaverdam Spring/Creek and Pryor Spring/Branch watersheds of Limestone County, Alabama. This newest proposal would add Blackwell Swamp, which contains 303 acres and 1.4 stream miles of habitat located entirely within the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. All together, the critical habitat ecompasses 1,852 acres and 9.4 stream miles.

A black and white map showing critical habitat in Limestone and Madison Counties.
Critical Habitat for the spring pygmy sunfish in Limestone and Madison County, Alabama. Map by USFWS.

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.

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