There are at least six freshwater fish found only in the Tallapoosa River, including one discovered 15 years ago: the Tallapoosa Sculpin.
This fish is small and camouflaged in dusky browns and blacks to blend into the rocky river bottom. It was not separated as a species until 2007 because it looks very much like other common and widespread species found in the Tallapoosa River, like the Banded Sculpin.
The Tallapoosa Sculpin is native in the Tallapoosa River system from its headwaters in Georgia to the fall line below Lake Martin at Thurlow Dam in Tallassee. This fish is found primarily in the creeks that flow into the Tallapoosa River, but several Tallapoosa Sculpins were captured in the shoals just upstream of Lake Martin. Tallapoosa Sculpins are usually found in less than 2 feet of water moving at medium to high speeds over clean gravel or rocky bottoms. These sculpins do not have swim bladders, which means that, unlike a lot of fish that spend time swimming in mid-water, they sink.
Sculpins are bottom dwellers with flat bellies and large pectoral fins. They can position their pectoral fins like airplane wing flaps to use the force of the current to hold themselves against the bottom, instead of sweeping them downstream. They also have closely positioned pelvic fins that can help hold them on the river bottom.
Tallapoosa Sculpins grow to fewer than 3 inches long and maintain their dark brown and black colors year round. They have three to four dark “saddles” or bands that go from side-to-side across their backs. Like all sculpins, Tallapoosa Sculpins have very large heads and mouths relative to their bodies.
The scientific name for this species is Cottus Tallapoosae.
Sculpins are mostly nocturnal fish that take cover under rocks and other structures during the day and come out to hunt at night. As juveniles, they eat mostly insect larvae. As they grow larger, they begin to eat larger prey – anything that can fit into their large mouths – such as aquatic insects, crayfish and other small fish. Sculpins ambush their prey by holding still on the bottom and quickly striking as a meal swims, crawls or floats by, or they stealthily move across the bottom, hunting for their dinner. In turn, these fish are preyed upon by larger fish and wading birds.
Female Tallapoosa Sculpins begin producing eggs in early spring. When the water temperatures hit about 54 degrees in March and April, these sculpins spawn in shallow water nests.
The Tallapoosa Sculpin was discovered by David A. Neely, James D. Williams and Richard L. Mayden. Some of the individual Tallapoosa Sculpins used to identify the species were found in creeks around Lake Martin, including Channahatchee Creek near Red Hill; Wind Creek just below Lake Martin; Hillabee Creek near Hackneyville; Little Hillabee Creek near Goodwater; Manoy Creek near Jacksons Gap; Timbergut Creek near New Site; and Hamlet Mill Creek just north of Horseshoe Bend.
Information from this article came from the scientific paper “Two New Sculpins of the Genus Cottus (Teleostei Cottidae) from the Rivers of Eastern North America” by Neely, Williams and Mayden, the Animal Diversity Web at the University of Michigan and outdooralabama.com.