pygmy sunfish pairPhoto by: Betsie Rothermel

Sunfish Disco

Author: Timothy Legare

Would you be surprised to know that there is a fish less than two inches long dancing in the waters of some Florida backyards? Here in Florida, there is a wonderful diversity of freshwater fish species, and that includes miniature sunfish. “Two species of pygmy sunfish occur here in Highlands County,” says Tim Legare, a research intern at Archbold Biological Station. “Though most people have probably never noticed them due to their small size.” The two species found here are the Everglades Pygmy Sunfish and the Okefenokee Pygmy Sunfish. “They inhabit bodies of water that you would likely drive by without a second thought, such as roadside ditches,” says Caitlin Weid, a research assistant who studies fish biology at Archbold. “They can also be found in ponds, sloughs, creeks, and springs.”

What makes pygmy sunfish so special? Similar to how we dress up and boogie down when the weekend rolls around, pygmy sunfish don their breeding colors and break out the moves to woo the lady of their choosing. “As I’m sure bass fishermen know, fish often look and act differently when it is time to find a partner. Pygmy sunfish do the same.” explains Dr. Jessica Judson, a postdoctoral researcher from Michigan State University working at Archbold. “When breeding season arrives, the body of male pygmy sunfish turns almost black, which helps their sparkly turquoise spots and stripes stand out better.”

<Photo caption: Top: Male Everglades Pygmy Sunfish in breeding coloration. Bottom: Female Everglades Pygmy Sunfish. Photo by Betsie Rothermel.

These fancy colors help males attract a female, but the outfit alone won’t get him a date; the venue and dance moves are just as important. Once a male finds the perfect stage - a patch of fine-leaved aquatic plants - and spots a female, he breaks out his best moves to woo her towards his chosen site. In his “Wiggle Waggle Dance,” he swims up and down, flashing his fins, making sure his partner-to-be notices him. If he succeeds in attracting her, the two come together in the clump of plants and she lays eggs.

In a surprising twist, the male then chases the female away and begins his watch over the eggs. If the male is threatened while guarding his eggs, he spreads his fins as wide as he can and flutters them rapidly. And if this isn't scary enough, he’ll become a darker color and turn sideways to show off how large he is. If the threatening party still isn't scared off, the male will arch his back, bringing his head close to his tail, and strike out at the target faster than our eyes can see. This is often enough to make predators question if this little fish is really worth the trouble.

“Small freshwater fish are often overlooked when we think about Florida’s fantastic wildlife. If we can't catch them on a hook and line, we often don't take them into consideration.” says Legare. “Now that I know more about the behaviors of some of these tiny fish, I will never look at a roadside ditch quite the same!”

pygmy sunfishPhoto by: Timothy Legare

Female Everglades Pygmy Sunfish. Photo by Tim Legare.