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Candy darters (Etheostoma osburni) in Big Stony Creek

Below is a short video of the elusive candy darter, native to the New River drainage.
Virginia has an excellent variety of native fishes primarily due to the diversity of aquatic habitats. Several large Chesapeake bay tributaries begin on the eastern slope of the Appalachians as cold upland creeks, gaining volume and strength before emptying into the Bay. Headwaters may begin as a native brook trout stream but their ecology may change drastically, ultimately ending up (like the mighty James River) miles across and home to oyster reefs and a variety of saltwater species. But many Virginia rivers and streams do not end up in the Bay. In the western portion of the state, several large rivers – the North and South Forks of the Holston, the Clinch and the Powell – are part of the Tennessee drainage, while the ancient New River flows northward into West Virginia and becomes part of the Ohio drainage. The Roanoke River flows southward into North Carolina and ends up in Albemarle Sound. 
Roanoke logperch are native to just a few small sections of water in Virginia
Each of these rivers and drainages have a unique geological and cultural history, but also have fish species unique to them alone.Unfortunately, many of these species have evolved to rely upon their specific habitats within these rivers. Over time they may become isolated in an ever shrinking portion of habitat within their native rivers. An excellent example of this is the Roanoke logperch; this Threatened and Endangered species suffers primarily from habitat loss and degradation related to human activity along the banks of the Roanoke. The constriction of habitat often begins the slow doom of such creatures that literally have nowhere else to go. Not only are these fishes in jeopardy, but the cold, pristine streams they require is also getting harder and harder to find.
 The candy darter Etheostoma osburni is truly eye candy to native fish lovers
Recently Nick Little, Senior Aquarist for the National Aquarium in D.C. and I went in search of one of the rarest and arguably the most beautiful of all the darters, the candy darter Etheostoma osburni. This darter is native only to the New River drainage and is found in such limited areas and small numbers that it is listed as a Species of Special Concern, and is protected by law. We were driven by the desire to see these beautiful animals for ourselves, alive in their own habitat before they are gone. This may sound dramatic, but each year at least one spot I have previously enjoyed has been bought, bulldozed, or altered in the name of progress.

A pristine tributary of the New River
Although we are prohibited from collecting or displaying this species, as darter enthusiasts (nerds) the challenge was to find them, and then film them underwater.Unfortunately for us, they like gravelly beds in swift water, so our videos reflect the fact they are far more suited to such habitat than a couple of dudes in wet suits with one hand on a camera and 50 degree water flowing down your front.
Nick finds his soul mate; a female candy darter resting in the depression atop this rock
A male candy darter in the photo box
I put one of the photo boxes into action

Aside form the obviously beautiful candy darter there were many other excellent fishes, among them: the fantail darter, the Appalachia darter, mountain redbelly dace, an extraordinary population of crayfish, and the crescent shiner.

Appalachia darters are also native only to the New River system

1 Comment

  • Nick

    Well written article. Great shot of the darter in the photo box. Do you happen to have any stills of the large, male, Fantail?