Aquatic habitats in the Great Plains region were historically dominated by rivers and streams with associated wetlands and few natural lakes. Native fishes are typically riverine species that are in many cases adapted to strong current, turbid water, and a wide range of water temperatures. However, many species that require clear water and cool temperatures are found as relict populations in springs and headwater streams. The native and introduced fish fauna are an important link in food chains for many species and are significant economic resources for many communities.
The native fish fauna of the Great Plains includes representatives of twenty-eight families and more than 100 species. Several other families and many species have been introduced. The minnow family (Cyprinidae) is the most diverse with more than forty species native to the region. Other species-rich families include suckers (Catostomidae), catfish (Ictaluridae), perch (Percidae), and sunfish (Centrarchidae). The fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas), sand shiner (Notropis stramineus), and red shiner (Cyprinella lutrensis) are some of the most widespread species. Other species, like the Topeka shiner (Notropis topeka), plains minnow (Hybognathus placitus), and plains topminnow (Fundulus sciadicus), are nearly confined to the Great Plains.
Before European American settlement, the south-central portion of the region, covering Kansas and part of Colorado, was the most diverse, with 109 native species from twenty families. The north-central region (Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming) had ninety-three native species from twenty-two families while the northern Plains states' (North Dakota, Montana) native fishes numbered seventy-six species from nineteen families. The Canadian (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta) and southern (Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico) portions of the Great Plains were the least diverse with fifty-eight and sixty-two species respectively. Both regions had seventeen native families, but the southern region included representatives of two families (Characidae, Cyprinodontidae) and eight species found native nowhere else in the Plains. The northern states and Canadian regions contribute two families (Salmonidae, Cottidae) and four species to the native fauna. The Great Plains fish fauna shows a strong influence of its connection to the Mississippi drainage. However, representatives of northern and southwestern faunas are also in evidence.
Since the onset of European American settlement, many of the rivers have been dammed to produce reservoirs ranging in size from small farm ponds to large impoundments. Reservoirs and ponds have provided new habitats where exotic species have flourished after being introduced. Introduced sport fish, especially members of the families Salmonidae, Moronidae, and Centrarchidae, prey upon and compete for food with many native species. Aquatic habitats have also been altered or destroyed by chemical pollution, channelization, erosion, siltation, and water depletion. Habitat alteration, pollution, and introduction of nonnative species have led to the demise of many local populations. Introductions of mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) have competed with a number of native minnows and killifish, such as the plains topminnow. Habitat protection and restoration measures have been initiated by conservation organizations to prevent continued losses from the native fish fauna, but many populations are already in serious jeopardy or have been extirpated.
Edward J. Peters University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Brown, C. J. D. Fishes of Montana. Bozeman: Montana State University, 1971.
Cross, Frank B., and Joseph T. Collins. Fishes in Kansas. Lawrence: University of Kansas Natural History Museum, 1995.
Lee, David S., Carter R. Gilbert, Charles H. Hocutt, Robert E. Jenkins, Don E. McAllister, and Jay R. Stauffer Jr. Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes. Raleigh: North Carolina Biological Survey, Publication No. 1980-12, 1980.