Dan the (Vermilion) Darter

Biologist studies fish population
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross
Darter Drawings
- Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
Macro-invertebrates from Turkey Creek BioBlitz
- Photo Credit: Francesca Gross

Turkey Creek is locally famous for its historical significance, its scenic beauty, and having one of the best swimming holes in the area. Turkey Creek is internationally famous for being the only home for a stunning little fish, the Vermilion Darter.

The Vermilion Darter was a fairly recent discovery, and was formally ‘described’ (the process scientists use to present evidence they have found a new species) in 1992. 

Most darter species are small, bottom-dwelling fishes that eat insect larvae and other tiny invertebrates. Over evolutionary time, darters in the Southeast have split into dozens of species. Many, like the Vermilion, are found only in Alabama. Most darter species are camouflaged to blend in with the stream bottom or aquatic vegetation.  But when mating season arrives, male darters of many species develop brilliant colors.  Males with the most and brightest colors are more successful at attracting females than those with duller colors.

The Vermilion Darter male has bright reddish-orange across its belly and across its dorsal fins. It also has a brick-red stripe along the center of its body and a bluish-tint to its lower fins.  Females and young darters have a little red here-and-there, but are mostly mottled in browns and tans that help them hide on the stream bottom. The spawning season (mating season) is from April to July, and it’s during that time that the males are most brilliantly colored.

If you swim at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in Blue Hole or The Falls, you don’t have to worry about stepping on a Vermilion Darter.  The darters like shallow, rocky habitats where the current is moderately swift – not the deeper areas where most visitors swim.  

The darter was found to be endemic (found here and nowhere else) to the Turkey Creek watershed. Its range includes the creek, plus several of its tributaries, including Dry and Beaver Creeks, and an unnamed spring-fed creek along Alabama Highway 79 that joins Beaver Creek.  Altogether, the fish is only found along 7.2 miles of stream.  This is an unusually small range for a species.

Studies of Vermilion Darter museum specimens collected before the species was listed as endangered indicate that the fish reaches adulthood after one year, can live to three years of age, and has a ratio of 2 females for every 1 male.  They need cool water temperatures to spawn. Females can release an average of 65 eggs each spawning season. They release one egg at a time, which is then fertilized by an attending male she has chosen. Eggs are sticky, and females attach them to rocks that are 1-3 inches in diameter. These rocks need to be clean of silt and other materials. Neither parent lingers to protect fertilized eggs or hatched young.

In the decade after its discovery, biologists monitoring its population noticed marked decline in numbers. In 2001 the species was listed as endangered on the US Endangered Species List.  This status grants it protection by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  The state of Alabama classifies the fish as having highest conservation concern. Learn more about threats to the darter here.

Do you want to see a Vermillion Darter in person?  It is illegal to capture them without state and federal permits, so your best chance is to come to Turkey Creek Nature Preserve during the spring or fall BioBlitzes sponsored by Birmingham-Southern College’s Urban Environmental Studies Program. During the BioBlitzes, biologists and natural history experts scour the preserve to document which species are present. Usually there’s a biologist present with the proper permit for sampling.

In spring 2013, the grassroots group Friends of Turkey Creek sponsored a naming contest for the creek’s mascot, the Vermilion Darter. The group enlisted the expertise of Pinson Elementary School students, and received hundreds of entries. The Vermilion Darter now has an official alias, “Dan the Darter.”

-R. Scot Duncan