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NFC: Dollar Sunfish Article

The Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus) as an Aquarium Species
Robert Rice
Hiding in the back waters, swamps and small ponds of the Southeast is a
seldom seen gem that is so beautiful , so pleasant to keep that it puts
many tropicals to shame. It's behavior in captivity and ease of care are
worthy of an entire book not just an article. It's life colors and habit
remain basically ignored by the various professionals who have come
across this shining star. It's size or lack of it (under 5 inches)
relegate it to bait status and thus it is totally forgotten by the local
sportsmen. With this ignorance comes apathy and sadly it is, quietly
disappearing from it's traditional homes. The victim of our increasing
pressure on the environment.
Who is this you wonder, some unusual fringe species ? Some really cool
orchid ? A hard to please environmental elitist? Nope this fella is the
Dollar Sunfish one of the hardiest guys you will ever come across! I have
yet to find a true species definition, the standard definition is see
Longear description as they are so similar in appearance. My observations
are as follows, the Male Dollar sunfish is a bluish hue with light
colored vermiculations across the face, gill plates, and lips. The eyes
can be encircled with colors ranging from red to white. Maximum size 5
inches typical size 4 or less. They display sexual dimorphism in the
typical Sunfish manner. The males being more colorful and aggressive than
the females. They are predacious feeding on insects and small fish. There
is an extreme amount of color variation from location to location which
leads me to suspect that the species possesses plastic genes. For the
aquarist this is a terrific bonus, the chance to develop new color
strains is always exciting! 
Collecting this species is the most time consuming and difficult problem
that the Aquarist must tackle. For those outside of it's native range (
Eastern Texas east to the Atlantic and South of Central Oklahoma) I
recommend trading with Aquarist who already possess and are breeding the
species. For starters I'd recommend that you check into the North
American Native Fish Association which regularly posts a trading post
section in it's publications or the North American Native Fish Echo
(NANFE) on the fido net which has become an electronic gathering place
for those of us who keep and enjoy Native Fish. NANFE has become the
quickest place for people to negotiate their trades. Which ever is
convenient for you I recommend you check them out first.
For those of you within the Dollar Sunfishes Range who are bound and
determined to collect a local strain, get a dip net, a fishing license
and some waders because this little guy hides in some of the murkiest ,
weediest off the beaten path places you will ever collect in. I've found
them commonly in back washes, ox bows and swamps. You might as well
accept the fact that you are gonna get sweaty , muddy and bitten by
something before it is all done. Of course for me , that is the major
part of the fun, for you it may not be. After I collect sunfish specimens
there is a small problem with field identification. In areas where the
Dollar Sunfish and the Longear Sunfish overlap you sometimes find
juveniles of both species very hard to tell apart. I have found the
simplest solution is to take home a few and study them at the house. You
will find with a little time and effort proper identification will come
to you. As the specimens grow the differences will become clearer. You
can then release unwanted specimens back to their homes with no harm
Once in the Aquarium they are a joy to keep They take a variety of foods
without a problem. I feed mine frozen crawfish, raw oysters and a mix of
worms and other live insects when available. They adapt very quickly to
domestic life, they are not even a little shy as long as there is
sufficient structure to make them comfortable.. Within a week you can
expect to see typical Dollar Sunfish behaviors. The males will begin to
establish a hierarchy for everything from feeding to breeding. The
females will float between territories with little ill effects. One of
the most pleasant things about the Dollar Sunfish is that it's small
mouth allows you to keep a variety of darters, shiners and Madtoms in a
community atmosphere. So instead of relegating your sunfish to single
species tank in a back room you can put them up front in the main display
tank and not worry about your latest catch becoming a sushi bar!
For the Aquarist serious about breeding these fella's I have a tip, get
an outdoor pond! I know many people who have successfully bred the Dollar
Sunfish in an outdoor pond , but only a handful who have had similar
success in an aquarium. They seem to be the perfect species for a small
outdoor pond. They are aggressive insectivores, very tolerant of water
conditions and extremely tolerant of temperature extremes. I have been
fortunate enough to have observed a successful spawn in one of my tanks
and can add the following observations. The Dollar Sunfish needs a
chilling period to induce a spawn, like many temperate species without a
season of cold (-60 F) the females just don't become gravid. They seem to
be continual spawners when finally induced to spawn, at a temperature of
74 F my specimens spawned regularly for over a month until the tank
temperature reached 80 F. Then suddenly the spawning ceased. During that
time they ate HUGE amounts of foods of all types with relish.
If there ever was the classic example of a species that needs the
Aquarist help the Dollar Sunfish is that species. He has no advocate
anywhere except a few of us collectors. We have collected and kept him
for generations trying to learn as much as we can about this little
jewel, with the hope we can contribute to it's continued survival. Those
same collectors are many times not taken seriously by either our local
Department of Natural Resources personnel or the local Aquarist we meet.
We who know the species best are allowed to contribute the least. I
believe that now is a time for change, a time for action. Imagine if a
local Southeastern Aquarium Club in Atlanta for example, decided they
were going to get involved in keeping, rearing, and studying the Dollar
Sunfish. Keeping detailed notes on collection sites and breeding
behaviors. With the sheer number of members and the added influx of time
and resources they would make huge impact ! Detailed collection and
breeding data would prove invaluable and even more the public awareness
could be priceless. When someone said habitat for Dollar Sunfish was
threatened people would care, people would react.
This species is very well suited to the Aquarium and has been ignored for
so long that he has practically disappeared from many texts. That is a
mistake. We as Aquarist can do more to put these species back on the map.
As you can tell I really enjoy the Dollar Sunfish and a great many more
of our native fishes. If you seek more information about native fishes I
recommend you check out the following resources, Petersons Field guide to
North American natives by Larry Page and Brooks M. Burr or a Our Native
Fishes by John Quinn are excellent resources for the Aquarist who wants
to learn and do more for our Native Fishes. You can also reach me at
RobertRice at juno_com  

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