Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

This stickleback is an active fish that forms schools (5). Marine three-spined sticklebacks are migratory, whereas freshwater forms tend to be resident (they stay in the same area for life) (2). Spawning occurs in early spring and summer. The male builds a hollow nest with seaweeds or aquatic plants. After much cajoling by the male, the female lays her eggs inside the nest and the male takes over parental duties, guarding the fertilised eggs and fanning them with his fins to provide them with oxygen (4). The young sticklebacks stay within the safety of the nest until they have absorbed their yolk sacs; they then enter the water where they initially live on plankton (2). After a while they begin to feed on worms, crustaceans, aquatic insects, small fishes and even the eggs and fry of their own species (5).
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Description

The stickleback is a well-known fish, and is the archetypal 'tiddler', the first small fish caught by many school children (4). It is a small, beautifully streamlined, torpedo shaped fish, with a broad tail fin. Although most individuals tend to measure between 4 and 6 cm in length (2), some marine sticklebacks may grow to 10 cm (3). The common name derives from the most unique feature of these fish, the presence of two to four, but typically three, sharp spines on the back in front of the dorsal fin (3). The sides of this stickleback are usually covered with large bony plates; this armour is more developed on individuals living in the sea than freshwater sticklebacks (2). The back is dark grey, greyish or bluish-green, and the flanks are silvery (2). During the spawning season, males develop a metallic sheen and a prominent bright orange or red colouration on the front part of the underside (2).
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Comprehensive Description

Biology

Adults occur in fresh waters, estuaries and coastal seas (Ref. 4119). Anadromous, with numerous non-anadromous populations in brackish or pure freshwater, rarely in marine waters. In the sea, confined to coastal waters. In freshwater, adults prefer to live in small stream but may occur in a variety of habitats including lakes and large rivers (Ref. 59043). Inhabit shallow vegetated areas, usually over mud or sand (Ref. 5723). Form schools. Young associated with drifting seaweed (Ref. 12114, 12115). Juveniles move to the sea (anadromous populations) or to deeper, larger water bodies (freshwater populations) in July-August, forming large feeding schools (Ref. 59043). Feed on worms, crustaceans, larvae and adult aquatic insects, drowned aerial insects, and small fishes; has also been reported to feed on their own fry and eggs (Ref. 1998). Eggs are found in nests constructed from plant material (Ref. 41678). Males build, guard and aerate the nest where the eggs are deposited (Ref. 205). Maximum length in freshwater is 8 cm while in saltwater is 11 cm (Ref. 35388). Occasionally taken commercially in Scandinavia and processed into fishmeal and oil (Ref. 28219, 28964). Commonly used as a laboratory animal (Ref. 1998). A large bibliography is available at www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hall/1345/stickbibl.html.
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Distribution

Circumarctic and temperate regions: Extending south to the Black Sea, southern Italy, Iberian Peninsula, North Africa; in Eastern Asia north of Japan (35°N), in North America north of 30-32°N; Greenland.
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Western North Atlantic: Hudson Bay and Baffin Island to Chesapeake Bay. Europe: Mediterranean and Black Seas; also in most rivers. North Africa: reported from Mifidja near Algiers. North Pacific: Korea to Bering Sea and to Baja California, Mexico; but anadromous fish are only as far south as Monterey Bay, California, USA.
  • Arnoult, J., 1986; Bigelow, H.B. and Schroeder, W.C., 1953; Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald and H. Hammann, 1983; McPhail, J.D., 1969; Morrow, J.E., 1980; Muus, B.J. and J.G. Nielsen, 1999; Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr, 1991; Safran, P., 1990; Safran, P. and M. Omori, 1990; Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman, 1973.
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Range

This widespread species is found throughout Britain and continental Europe from the Iberian Peninsula, the Black Sea and Italy in the south, reaching as far north as Iceland, Norway and the White Sea in Russia (2). Elsewhere it occurs in North Africa, Iran, the North Pacific, and the North Atlantic (5).
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Physical Description

Morphology

Dorsal spines (total): 2 - 4; Dorsal soft rays (total): 10 - 14; Analspines: 1; Analsoft rays: 8 - 10; Vertebrae: 29 - 33
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Size

Max. size

11.0 cm TL (male/unsexed; (Ref. 35388)); max. reported age: 8 years (Ref. 72489)
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Length in freshwater is 8 cm; length in saltwater is 11 cm.
  • Arnoult, J., 1986; Bigelow, H.B. and Schroeder, W.C., 1953; Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald and H. Hammann, 1983; McPhail, J.D., 1969; Morrow, J.E., 1980; Muus, B.J. and J.G. Nielsen, 1999; Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr, 1991; Safran, P., 1990; Safran, P. and M. Omori, 1990; Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman, 1973.
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Diagnostic Description

Distinguished uniquely from its congeners in Europe by having trunk and caudal peduncle covered by a complete series of 29-35 bony scutes. Other characters important to separate this species from other species of the genus include posterior edge of scutes crenulated and scutes forming a lateral keel on caudal peduncle. Scutes may be missing on posterior part of trunk in hybrid zone with Gasterosteus gymnurus and in some isolated freshwater populations of northeastern Europe (Ref. 59043). Identified by the 3 to 4 sharp, free spines before the dorsal fin, the pelvic fin reduced to a sharp spine and a small ray, and the series of plates along the sides of the body (Ref. 27547). Gill rakers long and slender, 17 to 25 on the first arch or strictly freshwater forms, 1 or 2 more in anadromous forms; lateral line with microscopic pores (Ref. 27547). The anadromous form is fully plated, with up to 37 plates on the sides and a rather pronounced keel on each side of the caudal peduncle (Ref. 27547). Dorsal spines separated from each other and from the soft-rayed fins, each spine having a reduced membrane attached to its posterior side; anal spine free from rest of the fin; posterior margin of pectorals nearly truncate; caudal truncate to slightly indented (Ref. 27547). Freshwater forms usually mottled brown or greenish; anadromous forms silvery green to bluish black (Ref. 27547). A few isolated populations are black (Ref. 27547). Sides usually pale; belly yellow, white or silvery (Ref. 27547). Fins pale; pectoral rays often have dark dots (Ref. 27547). Breeding males (except for black forms) become brilliant bluish or green with blue or green eyes, and the forward part of the body, especially the breast region, turns bright red or orange (Ref. 27547). Caudal fin with 12 rays (Ref. 2196).
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Type Information

Type for Gasterosteus aculeatus aculeatus
Catalog Number: USNM 21140
Collection: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, Division of Fishes
Collector(s): Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris
Locality: Avignon, France, France, Europe
  • Type:
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Ecology

Habitat

Environment

benthopelagic; anadromous (Ref. 51243); freshwater; brackish; marine; depth range 0 - 100 m (Ref. 50550)
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Benthopelagic; freshwater; marine; depth range: to 27 m. Usually inhabits vegetated areas in mud or sand bottoms. In the sea, confined to coastal waters. Forms schools. Young associated with drifting seaweed.
  • Arnoult, J., 1986; Bigelow, H.B. and Schroeder, W.C., 1953; Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald and H. Hammann, 1983; McPhail, J.D., 1969; Morrow, J.E., 1980; Muus, B.J. and J.G. Nielsen, 1999; Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr, 1991; Safran, P., 1990; Safran, P. and M. Omori, 1990; Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman, 1973.
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Both marine and freshwater forms of this fish are known (2). The freshwater form is found in well-vegetated sites that typically have muddy or sandy bottoms. In the sea they are found only in coastal areas and juveniles are associated with drifting patches of seaweed. This species is also common in estuaries (5).
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Migration

Anadromous. Fish that ascend rivers to spawn, as salmon and hilsa do. Sub-division of diadromous. Migrations should be cyclical and predictable and cover more than 100 km.
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Trophic Strategy

Shoaling species outside the breeding season, especially when young. Inhabits vegetated areas, usually over mud or sand (Ref. 5723). In the sea, confined to coastal waters. Forms schools. Eggs are found in nests constructed from plant material (Ref. 41678). Anadromous and nerito-pelagic (Ref. 58426). Feeds on worms, crustaceans, larvae and adult aquatic insects, drowned aerial insects, and small fishes; has also been reported to feed on their own fry and eggs (Ref. 1998). Length in freshwater is 8 cm while in saltwater is 11 cm (Ref. 35388). Preyed upon by American mergansers.
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Feeds on worms, crustaceans, larvae and adult aquatic insects, drowned aerial insects, and small fishes.
  • Arnoult, J., 1986; Bigelow, H.B. and Schroeder, W.C., 1953; Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald and H. Hammann, 1983; McPhail, J.D., 1969; Morrow, J.E., 1980; Muus, B.J. and J.G. Nielsen, 1999; Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr, 1991; Safran, P., 1990; Safran, P. and M. Omori, 1990; Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman, 1973.
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Life History and Behavior

Life Cycle

Spawning behavior is similar for both freshwater and anadromous forms (Ref. 28966). Just before breeding, males become very territorial. The male builds a nest of plant-material glued together with spiggin, a protein produced in the kidney (Ref. 52349). Once a nest is built, the male entices the female into the nest by performing a courtship dance which is a series of zigzag movements (Ref. 1998). A receptive female follows the male who points the opening of the nest by posing above it with his head down. The female enters the nest, deposits up to a few hundred eggs, and is driven out by the male after eggs have been deposited. The male then enters the nest to fertilize the eggs. The male can choose to court another female to enter the nest and lay eggs before entering himself to fertilise the deposited eggs. Females may lay eggs in several nests over a period of several days or may be courted by the same male (Ref. 27547). The male guards and ventilates the eggs and young (Ref. 1998). During spawning season, males develop a bright orange to red belly and blue-green flank and eyes. Eggs hatch in 7-8 days. Anadromous forms usually die of exhaustion after spawning cycle. Freshwater individuals are able to complete several cycles within one year or sometimes over several years (Ref. 59043).
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Reproduction

Spawning behavior is similar for both freshwater and anadromous forms. During the breeding season, territorial males build a nest and attract females by performing a "courtship dance". Males direct a female to the nest opening by posing head down above the nest. After a female deposits 50-100 eggs, the male chases her out of nest before he fertilizes the eggs, or he attempts to court another female. Males remain in the nest to guard and ventilate the eggs and young. Females may lay eggs in more than one nest over several days. Fish are hermaphroditic in some populations.
  • Arnoult, J., 1986; Bigelow, H.B. and Schroeder, W.C., 1953; Eschmeyer, W.N., E.S. Herald and H. Hammann, 1983; McPhail, J.D., 1969; Morrow, J.E., 1980; Muus, B.J. and J.G. Nielsen, 1999; Page, L.M. and B.M. Burr, 1991; Safran, P., 1990; Safran, P. and M. Omori, 1990; Scott, W.B. and E.J. Crossman, 1973.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage: Gasterosteus aculeatus aculeatus

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

Status

Common and widespread in Britain (3).
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Threats

Least Concern (LC)
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This species is not currently threatened.
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Management

Conservation

Conservation action has not been targeted at this common species.
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Importance

fisheries: minor commercial; price category: unknown; price reliability:
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