Northern Sunfish

Lepomis peltastes Cope, 1870

Northern Sunfish (Lepomis peltastes)

Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
Centrarchidae (sunfishes and freshwater basses)
State Protection
Listed as Threatened by New York State: likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled in New York - Especially vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to extreme rarity or other factors; typically 5 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, very few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or very steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Secure globally - Common in the world; widespread and abundant (but may be rare in some parts of its range).


Did you know?

The subspecies of longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis peltastes) found in New York was determined to be a separate species from Lepomis megalotis and is now called the northern sunfish (Lepomis peltastes). The American Fisheries Society changed its designation from a subspecies to a separate species in 2013 (Page et al. 2013).

State Ranking Justification

Northern sunfish have a restricted range and have declined so much that they are no longer detectable in some areas. They are threatened by hybridization with other Lepomis species, invasive fish, and intensive agricultural practices (and other land uses) that contribute to poor water quality from runoff, pollution, and siltation.

Short-term Trends

Recent trends for this species are unknown.

Long-term Trends

Northern sunfish are estimated to have declined by so much that, besides for hybrids with other Lepomis species, they are no longer detectable during surveys.

Conservation and Management

Conservation Overview

Northern sunfish are threatened by poor land use practices that reduce water quality through runoff, pollution, and siltation. Invasive fish are also a problem for them. The existing population would benefit from continued monitoring. Repeat surveys of locations where they had been previously documented are needed.


Northern sunfish are threatened by siltation caused by runoff from agriculture and other land use activities that may disturb the soil layer and lead to erosion. Intensive agricultural practices, for instance, may lead to high silt loading, nitrification, and variable water flows (Wells and Haynes 2007). Land development and agriculture may also result in reduced water quality from pollution and runoff. Invasive species are also a primary threat. The introduced round goby (Neogobius melanostomus) is a known nest predator of northern sunfish. The spread of a native competitor, the green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus), as well as competition for spawning habitat with other more abundant Lepomis species may be problematic as well. Hybridization with bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is likely a major threat to the perpetuation of the northern sunfish (Sanderson-Kilchenstein 2015). A study of the last remaining native population in the state captured eight hybrids and no pure northern sunfish (Sanderson-Kilchenstein 2015). The small remaining population in New York state likely has difficulty finding mates and the females, which resemble bluegills, may be accepted as mates by the male bluegills (Sanderson-Kilchenstein 2015).

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Measures are needed to reduce runoff into areas used by the sunfish. When construction is needed near water systems, measures should be taken to reduce siltation as much as possible. This could include disturbing only the work area to maintain as much vegetation as possible to reduce runoff, working in phases to allow for more centralized control of sedimentation, using sediment traps or ditches to direct runoff away from the river, stabilizing soil by seeding, mulching, use of blankets, or wool binders. Protect slopes by using silt fences or fiber rolls. Logging and farming practices near waters can increase siltation or pollution. Encourage practices that maintain a riparian buffer to control pollution.
Competition with non-native species such as round goby and green sunfish pose a threat in parts of the northern sunfish range. It is difficult to control the movement of both species. It is recommended to monitor round goby movements and green sunfish in New York. Prohibit the use of round gobies in the bait trade. Trapping may be useful in some systems, but eradication is not likely. The use of chemicals, such as rotenone, is not advisable in areas with northern sunfish because all fish will succumb to the chemical. In the Great Chazy River, the Whiteside Dam may be a barrier that keeps non-native species from invading the known stretch of the river with northern sunfish (Maxwell and Carlson 2017).
Northern sunfish are not likely to be over fished because of their small size, but signage may still be helpful in fishing areas to reduce accidental takes (Maxwell and Carlson 2017).

Research Needs

Previously occurring locations such as Johnson Creek and Oak Orchard Creek should be resurveyed and the population in Tonawanda Creek and Great Chazy River should be monitored by periodic surveys to gain data on short-term trends. Genetic studies may be useful to determine how hybridization has affected the population.



The northern sunfish is associated with densely vegetated areas of slow-moving rivers and creeks. They may also linger around submerged woody debris. Northern sunfish tend to stay in shallow areas in clear, warm water, and avoids swift currents (Wells and Haynes 2007). Some habitats include backwaters where submerged aquatic vegetation is present, or in turbid streams where emergent vegetation is present. Preferred substrates include sand and gravel, although silt is sometimes used.

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Backwater slough (guide)
    The aquatic community of quiet to stagnant waters in sloughs that form in embayments and old meanders that are cut off from an unconfined river or marsh headwater stream only at the upstream end by deposition of a levee.
  • Confined river* (guide)
    The aquatic community of relatively large, fast flowing sections of streams with a moderate to gentle gradient.
  • Unconfined river (guide)
    The aquatic community of large, quiet, base level sections of streams with a very low gradient.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Associated Species

  • Redfin Shiner (Lythrurus umbratilis)


New York State Distribution

The northern sunfish's distribution in New York State is highly restricted. It is currently known only from an introduced population in Cayuga Creek in southern Niagara County and two native populations: a 6 km segment of Tonawanda Creek in Niagara and Erie counties (Carlson 2012) and Great Chazy River (Maxwell and Carlson (2017). Two records of northern sunfish were also found at a historically known area of Johnson Creek in Orleans County. It is unclear whether these represent a population or were incidental. Historically they were found in the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario watersheds in western New York and the Oswego watershed in central New York.

Global Distribution

The northern sunfish is restricted in range to certain large streams in the northern parts of east-central North America. Its range includes southern Quebec and Ontario, the Great Lakes Region (including Western New York), and the Mississippi River drainage.

Best Places to See

  • Tonawanda Creek (Niagara County)

Identification Comments

General Description

The northern sunfish is a colorful fish that looks similar to a pumpkinseed and is laterally compressed. They have an elongated gill flap giving the appearance of an ear.

Identifying Characteristics

The northern sunfish looks similar to a pumpkinseed. It is small and thin with a deep body that averages 4 to 4.5 inches in length. It is a beautifully colored fish with an olive to rusty-brown back, orange stomach, and blue-green bars on the sides of the head. They also have an elongated gill flap giving the appearance of a long ear.

Characters Most Useful for Identification

The most useful characters for identification are the short, round pectoral fins and the elongated gill flap that is edged in only white.

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

Adults are easiest to identify; especially the males.


Males nest in colonies and create nests resembling saucers in shallow waters with sand or gravel bottoms. Solitary nesting occurs occasionally as well. Males also care for the eggs by fanning them to remove silt and they guard them from predators. Spawning occurs in groups.


Northern sunfish are known to consume snails, leeches, fish eggs, aquatic insects, and perhaps even young fish.

Best Time to See

Northern sunfish are more active during the warm months.

  • Active
  • Reproducing

The time of year you would expect to find Northern Sunfish active and reproducing in New York.

Similar Species

  • Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
    The northern sunfish may be easily confused with the pumpkinseed. The northern sunfish has short, round pectoral fins that do not extend above the lateral line while the pumpkinseed has long, pointed pectoral fins that do extend above the lateral line. There are differences also when examining the gills. The gill covers of the northern sunfish are flexible with frilled margins while the gill cover margins on the pumpkinseed are stiff and smooth.

Northern Sunfish Images


Northern Sunfish
Lepomis peltastes Cope, 1870

  • Kingdom Animalia
    • Phylum Craniata
      • Class Actinopterygii (Ray-finned Fishes)
        • Order Perciformes (Perch-like Fishes)
          • Family Centrarchidae (sunfishes and freshwater basses)

Additional Common Names

  • Northern Longear Sunfish

Comments on the Classification

The subspecies of the longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis peltastes) was formally designated by the American Fisheries Society in 2013 as a separate species called the northern sunfish (Lepomis peltastes). The scientific name was updated by NY Natural Heritage in 2016.

Additional Resources


Berra, T.M., and G.E. Gunning. 1972. Seasonal movement and home range of the longear sunfish, Lepomis megalotis, (Rafinesque), in Louisiana. American Midland Naturalist 88(2):368-375.

Carlson, D.M. 2012. Progress with recovery of longear sunfish. New York State Department of Conservation.

Carlson, Douglas M. 2001. Species Accounts for the rare fishes of New York. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Fish, Wildlife, and Marine Resources. Bureau of Fisheries, Endangered Fish Project 89pp.

Carlson, Douglas M., Robert A. Daniels, and Jeremy J. Wright. 2016. Atlas of Inland Fishes of New York. New York State Museum Record 7. The New York State Education Department and Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, New York.

Hubbs, C.L. and G.P. Cooper. 1935. Age and growth of the long-eared and the green sunfishes in Michigan. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters 20(1934):669-696, pl. 104-107.

Lee, D. S., C. R. Gilbert, C. H. Hocutt, R. E. Jenkins, D. E. McAllister, and J. R. Stauffer, Jr. 1980. Atlas of North American freshwater fishes. North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, Raleigh, North Carolina. i-x + 854 pp.

Maxwell, Eric and Doug Carlson. 2017. The first record of northern sunfish (Lepomis peltastes) in the Lake Champlain watershed.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Page, L. M., H. Espinosa-PĂ©rez, L. T. Findley, C. R. Gilbert, R. N. Lea, N. E. Mandrak, R. L. Mayden, and J. S. Nelson. 2013. Common and scientific names of fishes from the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Seventh edition. American Fisheries Society, Special Publication 34, Bethesda, Maryland.

Page, L. M., and B. M. Burr. 1991. A field guide to freshwater fishes: North America north of Mexico. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. 432 pp.

Raney, E.C. 1965. Some pan fishes of New York - rock bass, crappies, and other sunfishes. Conservationist 19(6):21-29.

Sanderson-Kilchenstein, David. 2015. Aspects of bowfin and northern sunfish biology and ecology. M.S. thesis. State University of New York College at Brockport.

Smith, C.L. 1985. The Inland Fishes of New York State. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 522pp.

Wells, S.M. 2009. Habitat Associations of Fish Species and their Assemblages in the Tonawanda and Johnson Creek Watersheds of Northwestern New York State. SUNY Brockport. Thesis. 365 pp.

Wells, S.M. and J.M. Haynes 2007. Status of the longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), in western New York, USA. final rpt. - SWG T-5, proj. 2. NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. Albany. 174pp.

Werner, R.G. 1980. Freshwater fishes of New York State. N.Y.: Syracuse University Press. 186 pp.


About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Kelly A. Perkins and Hollie Y. Shaw

Information for this guide was last updated on: June 28, 2018

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Lepomis peltastes. Available from: Accessed June 23, 2024.