New York Natural Heritage Program
Northern Sunfish
Lepomis peltastes Cope, 1870
Ray-finned Fishes

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.

Behavior [-]
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.

Diet [-]
Northern sunfish are known to consume snails, leeches, fish eggs, aquatic insects, and perhaps even young fish.
Northern Sunfish Images
click to enlarge
The 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 (blue shading) and reproducing (orange shading) in New York.
Similar Species
  • Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
    Northern sunfish may easily be confused with the longear sunfish and until recently, were considered to be the same species. The northern sunfish is the only of the two occurring in New York.
  • 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.