Florida's clear spring waters provide a natural aquarium for many of Florida's most common as well as most unique fish species. Some, like the American Shad, migrate to the springs from the ocean. Others, like the White Catfish, live in the dark recesses of the springs' underwater caves emerging only at night to feed. Meet some of these unique fish species up-close.
Prehistoric in appearance, yet timid in their behavior, the Florida Gar is one of the most distinctive and easily recognizable underwater inhabitants of Florida's springs. They are most often found congregating in schools in the protective shadows of spring-side vegetation rather than cruising in open water like their relative the Longnose Gar.
Like the prehistoric Gar, the Bowfin is the sole surviving member of a nearly extinct group of fishes. The Bowfin is found throughout North America in rivers, lakes, and springs east of the Mississippi. It is easily distinguished by its flattened head, long, stout body, long dorsal fin that extends along the back from head to tail.
Mircopterus salmoides floridanus
Due to their reputation as one of North America's most sought-after game fish, Largemouth Bass are one of the most recognizable inhabitants of the springs and spring-run rivers. They can be found patrolling the spring run and hiding under overhanging vegetation at the spring's edge.
Lepomis machrochirus mystacalis
Bluegills are one of the most common schooling fish snorkelers and swimmers are likely to encounter around docks and boats. Members of the sunfish family, they are easily identified by their dark bars which run vertically down their sides.
Though they are one of the least populous of all sunfish varieties at the springs, Redbreast Sunfish are the species most often encountered by swimmers and snorkelers due to their friendly and outgoing behavior. Most often seen near the surface at headsprings and along spring-run rivers, Redbreast Sunfish have also been encountered feeding on aquatic insects at depths of over 100 feet.
Like salmon, American Shad are anadromous fish that are known to travel hundreds of miles upstream from the ocean to spawn in large rivers. As a result, they are not often found in many of Florida's springs, and are encountered primarily in larger, deeper springs, which flow to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. John's River.
Ictalaurus nebulosus marmoratus
Brown Bullheads are one of the most common fish species encountered by divers inside of the caves and near cave openings and are distinguished from their relative, the White Catfish, by their dark, mottled coloration. Brown Bullheads feed primarily at night and have well-developed sensory capabilities, which allow them to detect members of their own social group.
One of the most well-known of all saltwater visitors to the springs, Mullet are most often seen in schools and easily recognized from the surface by their distinct habit of leaping into the air. Primarily bottom feeders, they can also be found grazing on algae and aquatic plants.
Though they are rarely seen during the day and most often found in underwater caves, American Eels are common residents of Florida springs, inhabiting spring caves from the Panhandle to the Peninsula. American Eels feed on fish, crayfish, and insects, and they migrate to the ocean to spawn.
Easily distinguished by their milky coloration and signature whiskers, White Catfish inhabit the dark recesses of the springs' underwater caves. Like their relatives the Bullheads, White Catfish are nocturnal hunters, which emerge after sunset to scavenge the bottom sediments for food.
Less than an inch in length, the Least Killfish is the smallest vertebrate animal in North America and one of the most unique underwater inhabitants of the springs. They are most often found hiding in mats of vegetation near the surface and swimming in small schools in open water in search of microscopic plankton and aquatic insects.
Golden Shiners are a schooling species found throughout Florida fresh waters. They get their name from their mirror-like scales, which reflect the sun's rays filtering through the clear water like golden waves of light.