“Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge: A Tale of Two Sunfishes

It’s week 4 of the “Fishes of Wisconsin” challenge and we’ve got some drama unfolding right on the poster as, juxtaposed side-by-side are two species of sunfish with nearly polar-opposite trajectories.

Sunfish on Fishes of Wisconsin Poster. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer
Sunfish on Fishes of Wisconsin Poster. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

The first is also the first threatened species we’ve encountered on this Quixotic tilt at cataloging the state’s fish species. It is called the longear sunfish, or Lepomis megalotis. While they have a relatively wide range in the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, preferring clear, shallow streams, the longear sunfish is a state-listed species here in Wisconsin.
In fact, throughout the 20th century, numbers of this tiny member of the sunfish family declined, as the longear doesn’t tolerate cloudy water and, well, what with all of the converting prairies and forests to cities and farms, we got pretty good at muddying the waters. Today in the Dairy State, longear sunfish are only found in fewer than two dozen counties.
Range of the orangespotted sunfish.

By contrast, the orangespotted sunfish, Lepomis humilis, has been swimming across midwestern states like Ohio, expanding its range ever eastward over the past few decades. And, unsurprisingly, guess what kind of water it prefers? That’s right – large, muddy rivers and reservoirs.
So the same human land-use practices that have put the longear sunfish into a tailspin, have really helped the orangespotted sunfish take off.
Like several other species, both the longear and the orangespotted are part of the Lepomis genus, a genus that includes bluegill, and pumpkinseed. But they’re members of the sunfish family, called Centrarchide,  which includes Micropterus, the genus that holds largemouth, smallmouth and many other bass species.
While they strongly resemble larger panfish, like the pumpkinseed, neither of these two species would make much of a meal (although they are sometimes caught by anglers). What they lack at the dinner table, however, both longear and orangespotted sunfish make up for in sheer style. Especially when males have their spawning colors on in full, they are both, well, like the images on the poster — works of art. Or, as the Iowa DNR puts it “…so brightly colored that they appear to be painted…”
Enjoy the slideshow below of a few amazing examples. (Note: the orangespotted sunfish are the ones with, well, the orange spots!)