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This Fish With a Colorful Name Is Worth Protecting

Redspotted sunfish have little spots speckling their bodies, but the tiny dots do not look very red. In males the spots are orange, and in females they look like more of a yellowish-brown color.

Redspotted sunfish in an aquarium.
(Photo by Chad Merda)

They are flattened from side to side and look similar in size and shape to their close relative, the bluegill. At their largest, these fish are just over 6 inches long. Sometimes this species is also called a stumpknocker.

A large family

Redspotted sunfish are part of a big family that includes more than 30 distinct species. They are freshwater ray-finned fish, but they vary in shape, size and color. This family includes many species that are commonly found in Will County. Smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, white and black crappies and bluegills all belong to the sunfish family.

What makes the redspotted sunfish different from its sunfish cousins that are common in Will County waterways is that it requires an extremely specific habitat. They prefer the backwaters of rivers. These are the parts of rivers that are not affected by the current. They need slow-moving water and a lot of aquatic plants. Redspotted sunfish like to hang out near muddy or sandy bottoms. They stay hidden in the plants to protect themselves from potential predators. They roam around and eat crustaceans and insects that crawl along the bottom.

A historic struggle

Sometimes backwaters are drained to turn this habitat into something else for human use. Sometimes backwaters have too much pollution for some living things to survive. Invasive species also sometimes move into these areas and change the habitat they invade. For example, grass carp and common carp appeared and overate all the plants the redspotted sunfish depended on. It was the loss of habitat and poor water quality that caused the number of redspotted sunfish to decline in Illinois.


Words to know

Captivity: The condition of being confined.

Crustacean: A class of mostly water-dwelling arthropods including crayfish, crabs, shrimp and lobsters.


As scientists surveyed habitats for these fish populations, they discovered less and less fish. The redspotted sunfish’s status in Illinois changed from a species of concern to state threatened to officially state endangered by 2009.

Called to action

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Natural History Survey have been working together to prevent the redspotted sunfish from becoming extinct in our state. They started a program to raise redspotted sunfish in captivity and then release babies back into their favorite habitats in the wild.

The program has been helping! Since 2010, more than 17,000 redspotted sunfish have been introduced at a few locations in Illinois. In fact, its status was changed back to threatened, which is a small step in the right direction. Efforts will continue to help this species recover.

Meet a fish or two

Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon is proud to have some redspotted sunfish living in its 2,000-gallon aquarium. Stop by the center to see this threatened species up close. You can also observe the other five species swimming along with them in the aquarium. Learn why a healthy habitat always has a diversity of species and ways you can help keep our waterways clean.


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