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Swamp Life – Merchant’s Millpond – by Aquarist Patrycja Lawryniuk

In the upcoming weeks, fellow Aquarist Jillian Swinford and I will hopefully get out for our first big collecting trip of the year to Merchants Millpond State Park in NC – about an hour and 20 minutes from the VLM. Merchants Millpond is part of the Chowan River drainage, just south of the Great Dismal Swamp. It is an environment that melds swamp land and forestry together, housing many awesome critters like water snakes, numerous turtle species, mysterious insects, tons of birds, and of course fish. The VLM has only a few exhibits in which we can display these unique swamp denizens, such as the Pygmy Sunfish exhibit, and the Cypress Swamp, so its mainly for fun and the fishes are release unharmed. A few animals we may be looking for however, are the flier Centrarchus maropterus, the warmouth Lepomis gulosus and the swamp darter Etheostoma fusiforme.

Juvenile flier Centrarchus macropterus

Juvenile fliers have a very distinctive eye spot or ocellus (pictured above) that is quite unique. As adults, their fin configuration is very similar in shape to the crappies, but with very different coloration. Most people don’t appreciate the simple beauty of these more “common” fishes, but each are interesting and attractive in their own way. A good example of this is the warmouth. Often lumped together as “sunfish” the members of the Lepomis family  may look very similar to each other, but the warmouth has “war paint” around the jaws, given them their name. Also, they usually have a slight purple sheen to them. Sunfishes make excellent display animals as they are hardy and get very accustomed to captivity due to their intelligence.

Warmouth Lepomis gulosus

Another interesting but seldom appreciated – or seen – fish is the pirate perch. Not a true perch, rather a species within its own Family Aphredoderidae. The family name is not a very attractive one, meaning “excrement throat” which describes the unique characteristic of this animal: their anus is positioned much farther forward than other fishes, all the way near its throat! These odd little fishes do NOT make good display animals as they are highly reclusive and nocturnal. But they are neat nonetheless.

Pirate perch Aphredoderus sayanus

The head of the longnose gar has many formidable teeth.
In addition to the small swamp species there are more recognizable large fishes like the longnose gar (above) and bowfin. Most fishermen discard these animals as trash fish, but they have earned their place in the toughest of environments, surviving for nearly 200 million years virtually unchanged. These “living fossils” can gulp surface air when necessary, allowing them to survive in the low oxygen waters of a southern swamp.
Cricket frog
There are even more creatures above the water. If you like snakes, this is the place for you. And of course if there are snakes, there are usually frogs – lots of them: green frogs, cricket frogs, tree frogs, bull frogs, leopard frogs. And many species of turtles, even an alligator!
Painted turtle Chrysemys picta

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