Redbreast sunfish Lepomis auritus, copyright Clinton & Charles Robertson.

Belongs within: Centrarchiformes.

Empire of the sunfish
Published 27 February 2013

Do you remember when this particular nightmare was vomited forth from the jaws of pop culture hell?

Yes, this was the execrable Billy the Bass, just one more reason we can all be glad that the 90s aren’t around any more. But what was it supposed to be?

Smallmouth bass Micropterus dolomieu, photographed by Eric Engbretson.

The bass and sunfishes of the family Centrarchidae are a group of more than thirty species of freshwater fish mostly native to North America east of the Rocky Mountains. A single species, the Sacramento perch Archoplites interruptus, is native to northern California. The family was more widely distributed in the past: the Oligocene–Miocene genera Plioparchus and Boreocentrarchus hail from Alaska, Oregon and the Dakotas (Near & Koppelman 2009). They will also be much more widely distributed in the future: species of the genera Lepomis and Micropterus have been introduced to numerous places around the world as sportfish. The centrarchids are all carnivorous, though the nature of their prey varies from zooplankton to insects to other fish.

White crappie Pomoxis annularis, photographed by D. Ross Robertson.

The molecular analysis of the Centrarchidae by Near et al. (2005) identified the mud sunfish Acantharchus pomotis as sister to all other centrarchids, contrary to its previous inclusion in the subfamily Centrarchinae with other centrarchids possessing more than three spines in the anal fin (Near & Koppelman 2009). Instead, the two genera whose species possess only three anal spines, Lepomis and Micropterus, form a clade that is sister to the remaining ‘centrarchine’ genera. These are the aforementioned Archoplites, the flier Centrarchus macropterus, the banded sunfishes Enneacanthus, the rock basses Ambloplites and the somewhat unfortunately named crappies of the genus Pomoxis. These are mostly deep-bodied feeders on small invertebrates, though the larger species may also take small fish. Archoplites is a more dedicated piscivore. This latter species is also notable for having less elaborate mating behaviour than other centrarchids: in contrast to the elaborate courtship rituals and nests of other centrarchids, Archoplites males do little more than use the tail fin to dig a small depression (Berra 2007). One can’t resist wondering if Archoplites‘ lax behaviour is connected with its geographic isolation from other species.

Pumpkinseed Lepomis gibbosus, photographed by Cliff.

The genera Micropterus and Lepomis are each more diverse than the centrarchine genera. The black basses of the genus Micropterus are relatively long-bodied compared to other centrarchids, and are all piscivores. Lepomis, with twelve species, is the most diverse centrarchid genus both numerically and ecologically; as well as numerous insectivorous species, it contains the piscivorous warmouth Lepomis gulosus, the specialised planktivorous bluegill L. macrochirus, and two molluscivorous species, the redear sunfish L. microlophus and the pumpkinseed L. gibbosus. Phylogenetic relationships within Lepomis indicate a certain dynamism of ecology as well: a number of species pairs can be identified connecting large and small species, while the two molluscivores are not immediate relatives within the genus (Near et al. 2005).

Systematics of Centrarchidae
<==Centrarchidae [Centrarchinae]
    |--Elassoma [Elassomatidae, Elassomatinae, Elassomatoidei]ND13
    |    |--E. evergladeiAS77
    |    |--E. okefenokeeND13
    |    `--E. zonatum Jordan 1877LD09
    `--+--Acantharchus pomotisAS77
          |    |--A. clarkiNE12
          |    `--A. interruptusSBW95
             |  |    |--E. gloriosusSBW95
             |  |    `--E. obesusSBW95
             |  `--+--Centrarchus macropterusAS77
             |     `--AmbloplitesAS77
             |          |--A. cavifronsSBW95
             |          |--A. constellatusLBC19
             |          `--A. rupestris (Rafinesque 1817)OE97
                |    |--P. annularisSBW95
                |    |--P. nigromaculatusSBW95
                |    `--P. sparoidesF15
                `--LepomisAS77 [incl. ChaenobryttusSBW95; Lepominae, Lepomini]
                     |  i. s.: L. incisorF15
                     |--L. humilisAS77
                     `--+--+--L. gulosus (Cuvier 1829)AS77, OE97 [=Chaenobryttus gulosusM86]
                        |  `--L. macrochirusAS77
                        |       |--L. m. macrochirusAS77
                        |       `--L. m. purpurescensAS77
                        `--+--Micropterus [Micropterini]AS77
                           |    |--M. coosaeLBC19
                           |    |--M. dolomieu Lacépède 1802OE97
                           |    |--M. punctulatus (Rafinesque 1819)OE97
                           |    |--M. salmoides (Lacepède 1802)SE08
                           |    |    |--M. s. salmoidesB96
                           |    |    `--M. s. floridanusB96
                           |    `--M. treculiB96
                           `--+--L. cyanellusAS77
                              `--+--+--L. microlophusAS77
                                 |  `--+--L. marginatusAS77
                                 |     `--L. megalotisAS77
                                 `--+--L. punctatusAS77
                                    `--+--L. auritusAS77
                                       `--L. gibbosus (Linnaeus 1758)AS77, LD09

*Type species of generic name indicated


[AS77] Avise, J. C., & M. H. Smith. 1977. Gene frequency comparisons between sunfish (Centrarchidae) populations at various stages of evolutionary divergence. Systematic Zoology 26 (3): 319–335.

Berra, T. M. 2007. Freshwater Fish Distribution. University of Chicago Press.

[B96] Bond, C. E. 1996. Biology of Fishes 2nd ed. Saunders College Publishing: Fort Worth.

[F15] Fowler, H. W. 1915. Cold-blooded vertebrates from Florida, the West Indies, Costa Rica, and eastern Brazil. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 67 (2): 244–269.

[LD09] Li, B., A. Dettaï, C. Cruaud, A. Couloux, M. Desoutter-Meniger & G. Lecointre. 2009. RNF213, a new nuclear marker for acanthomorph phylogeny. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 50: 345–363.

[LBC19] Ludt, W. B., C. P. Burridge & P. Chakrabarty. 2019. A taxonomic revision of Cheilodactylidae and Latridae (Centrarchiformes: Cirrhitoidei) using morphological and genomic characters. Zootaxa 4585 (1): 121–141.

[M86] Mayden, R. L. 1986. Speciose and depauperate phylads and tests of punctuated and gradual evolution: fact or artifact? Systematic Zoology 35 (4): 591–602.

Near, T. J., D. I. Bolnick & P. C. Wainwright. 2005. Fossil calibrations and molecular divergence time estimates in centrarchid fishes (Teleostei: Centrarchidae). Evolution 59 (8): 1768–1782.

[ND13] Near, T. J., A. Dornburg, R. I. Eytan, B. P. Keck, W. L. Smith, K. L. Kuhn, J. A. Moore, S. A. Price, F. T. Burbrink, M. Friedman & P. C. Wainwright. 2013. Phylogeny and tempo of diversification in the superradiation of spiny-rayed fishes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 110 (31): 12738–12743.

[NE12] Near, T. J., R. I. Eytan, A. Dornburg, K. L. Kuhn, J. A. Moore, M. P. Davis, P. C. Wainwright, M. Friedman & W. L. Smith. 2012. Resolution of ray-finned fish phylogeny and timing of diversification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 109 (34): 13698–13703.

Near, T. J., & J. B. Koppelman. 2009. Species diversity, phylogeny and phylogeography of the Centrarchidae. In: Cooke, S. J., & D. P. Philipp (eds) Centrarchid Fishes: Diversity, biology and conservation pp. 1–38. Blackwell Publishing.

[OE97] Obermeyer, B. K., D. R. Edds, C. W. Prophet & E. J. Miller. 1997. Freshwater mussels (Bivalvia: Unionidae) in the Verdigris, Neosho, and Spring River basins of Kansas and Missouri, with emphasis on species of concern. American Malacological Bulletin 14 (1): 41–55.

[SE08] Sevcsik, A., & T. Erös. 2008. A revised catalogue of freshwater fishes of Hungary and the neighbouring countries in the Hungarian Natural History Museum (Pisces). Annales Historico-Naturales Musei Nationalis Hungarici 100: 331–383.

[SBW95] Stauffer, J. R., Jr., J. M. Boltz & L. R. White. 1995. The fishes of West Virginia. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia 146: 1–389.

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