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A small fish with bright blue fins and orange coloring on its back.
Information icon Trispot darter. Photo by Pat O'Neil, Geological Survey of Alabama.

Trispot darter

Etheostoma trisella

  • Taxon: Freshwater Fish
  • Range: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee
  • Status: Listed as threatened


The trispot darter is a small bodied, benthic fish ranging in size from 1.3 – 1.6 inches as adults. The darter has three prominent black dorsal saddles, pale undersurface, and a dark bar below the eye. Scattered dark blotches exist on the fins rays. During the breeding season, males are a reddish-orange color and have green marks along their sides and a red band through their spiny dorsal fin.


The trispot darter utilizes distinct breeding and non-breeding habitats. From sometime around April to October, the species inhabits its non-breeding habitat, which consists of small to medium river margins and lower reaches of tributaries with slower velocities. It is associated with detritus, logs and stands of water willow and the substrate consists of small cobbles, pebbles, gravel, and a fine layer of silt. During low flow periods, darters move toward the main channel: edges of water willow beds, riffles and pools; mouths of tributaries. In the late fall, this migratory species shifts its habitat preference and moves toward spawning areas. These winter-spawning fish move from the main channels into tributaries and eventually reach seepage areas where they will congregate and remain from winter to spring. These breeding areas are intermittent seepage areas and ditches with little to no flow; shallow depths; moderate leaf litter covering mixed cobble, gravel, sand and clay; a deep layer of soft silt over clay; and emergent vegetation.


Trispot darters eat mainly midge larvae and pupae and also mayfly nymphs.

Historical range

All known records of the trispot darter occur above the fall line in the Ridge and Valley ecoregion of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. Historically, this species occurred throughout the middle to upper Coosa River Basin with collections in the mainstem Coosa, Conasauga, and Coosawattee rivers, their tributaries, and tributaries to the Oostanaula River. Genetics indicate that this species had a wide extent in the upper Coosa River Basin and ranged from at least the Little Canoe Creek system near Springville, Alabama to the Upper Conasauga River near Conasauga, Tennessee. Historic collections of the trispot darter are known from Cowans Creek, a tributary to Spring Creek which is a tributary to the Coosa River, and Johns and Woodward creeks, tributaries to the Oostanaula River.

Current range

Currently, the trispot darter is known to occur in Little Canoe Creek, Ballplay Creek tributaries, Conasauga River and tributaries, and Coosawattee River and a tributary. For the purposes of this report we considered three historical Management Units (MU’s) (Cowans Creek System, Johns Creek System, and Woodward Creek System) and four current MU’s for the trispot darter (Little Canoe Creek System, Ballplay Creek System, Conasauga River System, and Coosawattee River System). Historical MU’s were defined as one or more watersheds that the species was collected in prior to 2007. Current MU’s were defined as one or more watersheds that the species currently occupies (collections 2007-2017) and were grouped based on similar management strategy requirements and genetic research. Currently, the trispot darter occupies approximately 20% of its historically known range.

Conservation challenges

Reduced connectivity

Numerous natural features can limit or prevent fish movement such as beaver dams and waterfalls as well as manmade structures that prevent fish movement. Structures installed at road crossings (bridges and culverts), dams, and pipelines all have the potential to act as barriers to fish movement, block exchange of genetic material between populations, increase a population’s vulnerability to local extinction, and prevent recolonization after extirpation has occurred.

A corogated metal tube allows water to run under a road.
Culverts like this can be a barrier for fish as they swim upstream. Photo by Alabama Rivers and Streams Network SHU Mapper.

Hydrologic alteration

Hydrologic alteration (changes in the water flow) has two components: increases in storm flow frequency and intensity and a decrease in base flows. Activities that lead to hydrologic alteration include reservoir construction and operation, surface water and groundwater withdrawals, and urbanization. A hydropower dam, Carters Dam, exists on the Coosawattee River on the boundary of the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge ecoregions. Non-hydropeaking reservoirs, farm ponds, amenity lakes, and other impoundments may substantially alter flows by storing water during low flow periods, effectively dampening moderate to high flows and in some cases augmenting flows. Reduced base flows reduce the habitat available to darters.

Channel modification

Channel modification can refer to a number of activities such as: channelization, piping, in-stream construction, in-stream mining, and reservoir creation. Channelization includes straightening, deepening, or widening of streams and rivers for flood control, drainage improvement, navigation, and relocation. Channel modification can lead to a loss of essential trispot habitat components, or completely destroy the habitat.


Urbanization refers to a change in land cover and land use from forests or agriculture to increased density of residential and commercial infrastructure. Urbanization is expected to affect the trispot darter across its range due to the majority of known localities occurring in close vicinity to the growing Atlanta metropolitan area, Chattanooga, Birmingham, and intervening areas with growing populations and increasing development.

Loss of riparian vegetation (plants along river margins and stream banks)

Removal of riparian vegetation can destabilize stream banks, cause increases in stream sedimentation and turbidity, water temperature, and the amount light that hits the water. There are numerous pastures where livestock have access to streams which have been identified as spawning habitat for the trispot darter in the Little Canoe Creek watershed. Livestock accessing riparian buffers and, subsequently, the stream proper, lends to increased concern for future water quality issues and habitat destruction. Livestock accessing streams also de-stabilize stream banks which creates increased sediment loads within these small systems.


A wide range of activities can lead to sedimentation within streams that can include: agriculture, construction activities, stormwater runoff, unpaved roads, forestry activities, utility crossings, dredging, and historic land use. Within the range of the trispot darter, sedimentation is occurring due to urban impacts in the Springville, Alabama and Dalton, Georgia areas, agricultural practices in the Conasauga River basin, and livestock access to streams in the Little Canoe Creek watershed.

Water quality and non-point source pollution


Contaminants, including metals, hydrocarbons, pesticides and other potentially harmful organic and inorganic compounds, are common in urban streams and may be partially responsible for the absence of sensitive fish in those systems. These include wastewater treatment plants, mines, and industrial facilities. Non-point sources are more difficult to pinpoint. Pesticides are frequently found in streams draining agricultural lands, with herbicides being the most commonly detected.

Poultry litter

Poultry litter is a mixture of chicken manure, feathers, spilled food, and bedding material that frequently is used to fertilize pastureland or row crops. A broiler house containing 20,000 birds will produce approximately 150 tons of litter a year. Surface-spreading of litter allows runoff from heavy rains to carry nutrients from manure into nearby streams. Repeated or over application of poultry litter, in addition, can result in phosphorus buildup in the soil.

Partnerships, research and projects

  • Georgia Department of Natural Resources is performing a comprehensive conservation status assessment by compiling and summarize existing distribution data. Information needed for an assessment of threats to spawning habitats will also be provided.
  • University of West Florida and Auburn University are collaborating to conduct environmental, or eDNA, studies on the trispot darter in Alabama.
  • The Geological Survey of Alabama is carrying out a threats analysis for the trispot darter and collecting microhabitat data. Their work will also include known collection information and a distribution map depicting geographic regions, hydrologic units, and general land use.
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as part of the Alabama Rivers and Streams Network, have been identifying a list of potential barriers (primarily road crossings) throughout much of the Trispot Darter range in Alabama
  • Private entities have assisted researchers with trispot darter status surveys.
  • Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife partnership within the basin will help farmers develop and implement strategies to improve water quality.

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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