Lepomis marginatusDollar sunfish

Geographic Range

Dollar sunfish (Lepomis marginatus) are a Nearctic species native to the southeastern and south-central United States. Dollar sunfish range are found in water bodies throughout the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Their range extends as far west as eastern Texas, as far north as the Fall Line in North Carolina and as far south as the southern tip of Florida. They are also found in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, eastern South Carolina, southern Georgia, southeastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, and the southwestern tip of Kentucky. (Bransky and Dorn, 2013; Rice, 1997; Ross, et al., 2001; Schable, 2002; Winkelman, 1993)


Dollar sunfish inhabit an array of aquatic ecosystems. Although they are mainly found in lentic habitats, such as lakes and ponds, they may also inhabit rivers, streams, swamps, and estuaries. Dollar sunfish prefer shallow water with an abundance of sand or other fine sediment in which they can make their nests. They often live in areas with dense aquatic vegetation. (Bransky and Dorn, 2013; Gunning and Suttkus, 1990; Meffe and Sheldon, 1988; Myers, 1952; Rice, 1997; Schable, 2002; Winkelman, 1996)

  • Range depth
    0.1 to 0.5 m
    0.33 to 1.64 ft

Physical Description

Dollar sunfish measure 76 to 127 mm in total length as adults. When viewed from the front, dollar sunfish are narrow, as their sides are compressed medially. However, when viewed from the side, dollar sunfish appear nearly circular, with bodies that are about as tall as they are long. Their bodies taper slightly to their tails, which end in large, slightly indented tailfins. Dollar sunfish have one dorsal fin starting just behind their gill arches and extending to the posterior end of their bodies, just before their tail. The first portion of their dorsal fin is shorter, with 9 to 11 supporting spines, and the second portion is slightly taller, with 10 to 12 thin supporting rays. Dollar sunfish have rounded pectoral fins with 12 rays, small pelvic fins, and comparatively large, singular anal fins.

Dollar sunfish exhibit sexual dimorphism, mostly in regard to coloration. Males are typically darker and more colorful overall, with olive-brown dorsal coloration that gradually changes to yellow-orange ventral coloration. Males also have lateral orange and blue spots and dorsal fins that are dark red or orange. During breeding season, male dollar sunfish develop more intense coloration. During this time, they have blue fins and orange or red lateral coloration. Females are lighter overall, with consistent coloration throughout the year. They have light blue or green lateral coloring and orange or white ventral coloring.

Dollar sunfish are similar in appearance to longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis). However, longear sunfish are typically larger as adults and they have several slight morphological differences. For example, whereas dollar sunfish usually have 4 cheek scale rows and 12 pectoral fin rays, longear sunfish have up to 6 cheek scale rows and 14 pectoral fin rays. Furthermore, dollar sunfish often have blue spots on their opercular flaps and prominent, red lateral lines, whereas longear sunfish typically lack both of these features. (Rice, 1997; Ross, et al., 2001; Schable, 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range length
    76 to 127 mm
    2.99 to 5.00 in


Dollar sunfish hatch from eggs as small, non-swimming larvae, which still have yolk sacs containing nutrients. They quickly develop into swimming larvae that remain close to their natal area. Initially, larvae are mostly transparent, except for their intestines and large black eyes. Dollar sunfish grow rapidly at first and begin to resemble adults in coloration as they increase in size. They are considered sexually mature when they are around 60 mm in length, which they typically reach within 2 years. Dollar sunfish exhibit indeterminate growth, and have been recorded reaching lengths of 76 to 127 mm. Average size after one year is about 57 mm. By 4 years of age, dollar sunfish measure about 95 mm, and a maximum length of 127 mm was recorded for an individual that was 6 years old. (Avise, 1977; Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Kozlowski, 1996; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)


Dollar sunfish are polygynous, meaning one male mates with multiple females during a breeding season. Dollar sunfish are considered sexually mature when they reach about 60 mm in length, usually before they are 2 years old. Males use their fins to create shallow depressions in sediment. These depressions are an average of 30 cm in diameter and serve as nests for fertilized eggs. Dollar sunfish may build their nests in isolated areas or in communal areas with 20 or more nests.

Further information regarding dollar sunfish mating systems is limited. However, the behavior of their close relatives, longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), has been studied further. Longear sunfish also build nests in sediment, but they are monogamous within a breeding season. When a male longear sunfish detects a nearby female, it swim backs and forth between its nest and the female. If the female is receptive to mating, it will follow the male to its nest and deposit eggs for external fertilization. During this courtship ritual, male longear sunfish also produce grunting and popping sounds. It is likely that dollar sunfish exhibit similar courtship behaviors, albeit with multiple mates during the breeding season. Other sunfish species in the genus Lepomis are typically aggressive during breeding season, so it is likely that dollar sunfish also exhibit aggression towards competitors. (Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Gerald, 1971; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)

Dollar sunfish are iteroparous and usually reproduce multiple times within each breeding season, which typically extends from April to August. Males dig nests in the sediment of shallow areas, typically at depths of 10 to 50 cm and within 2 m of the shoreline. Nests are an average of 30 cm in diameter and there may be as many as 5 nests per m^2, depending on population density.

Once a female selects a nest, it lays its eggs and the resident male fertilizes them. Females release around 150 to 200 eggs per spawning event and eggs develop for an average of 6 days before larvae hatch. Newly-hatched larvae measure around 10 mm in length and they remain this size for about a month before they begin to grow and develop adult coloration. (Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)

  • Breeding interval
    Dollar sunfish breed multiple times throughout their breeding season, although the exact interval between breeding events is unknown.
  • Breeding season
    Dollar sunfish breed continuously during warmer months (April to August), and not at all during colder months (September to March).
  • Range number of offspring
    150 to 200
  • Average time to hatching
    6 days
  • Average time to independence
    6 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Dollar sunfish exhibit limited parental investment in their offspring. Males construct shallow nests in sediment, which prevents eggs from being dispersed on water currents. Males defend the same nest sites throughout each breeding season, often rearing more than one brood of eggs per year. They defend eggs and newly-hatched larvae from predators such as mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) and other types of common sunfish (genus Lepomis). Male dollar sunfish are also reported to show greater vigilance and aggressiveness when they are caring for larger broods. Female dollar sunfish exhibit no parental investment beyond the act of mating. (Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996; Zandona, et al., 2021)

  • Parental Investment
  • male parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • male


The average lifespan of dollar sunfish is 2.5 years in the wild, and the maximum reported age of a wild dollar sunfish is 6 years. Although dollar sunfish are occasionally kept in captivity, there are no reports of average or maximum captive lifespan. (Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Schable, 2002)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 to 6 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    2.5 years


Dollar sunfish are primarily diurnal, spending most of their time in shallow, lentic habitats, where they forage and reproduce. However, dollar sunfish migrate to deeper waters during colder months, usually between September and March. Following spring floods, dollar sunfish will also take advantage of higher water levels and forage in flooded areas. An exact range of depths at which dollar sunfish are active has not been reported.

During the breeding season, dollar sunfish build nests in shallow water (10 to 50 cm deep), often less than 2 m from shore. In areas with healthy populations of dollar sunfish, there may be as many as 5 nests per m^2. Males aggressively defend their nests from competing males and potential egg predators. Many males sustain damage to their fins due to intraspecific aggression. Throughout the course of the breeding season, male dollar sunfish form a hierarchy based on size, with larger individuals outcompeting smaller ones. Reproductive females develop stripes along their bodies as a signal to males not to attack them. Females are not as aggressive as males, but may receive aggression from males when they are not reproductively active. (Belfiore and Schofield, 2019; Rice, 1997; Ross and Baker, 1983; Winkelman, 1996)

  • Average territory size
    706.5 cm^2

Home Range

There is limited information on home ranges of dollar sunfish specifically. However, other species of common sunfish (genus Lepomis) forage in shallow water along stretches of shoreline averaging 50 m in length.

Dollar sunfish do not defend territories outside of breeding season. Within breeding season, males defend nests that average 30 cm in diameter, which equates to a territory size of 706.5 cm^2. Female dollar sunfish do not defend territories at any point during the year. (Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)

There is limited information on home ranges of dollar sunfish specifically. However, other species of common sunfish forage in shallow water along stretches of shoreline averaging 50 m in length.

Dollar sunfish do not defend territories outside of breeding season. Within breeding season, males defend nests that average 30 cm in diameter, which equates to a territory size of 706.5 cm^2. Female dollar sunfish do not defend territories at any point during the year. (Cooke and Philipp, 2009; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)

Communication and Perception

Dollar sunfish communicate using visual, tactile, and acoustic cues, especially during breeding season. Reproductive males develop vivid orange and blue coloration, which communicates their fitness to conspecifics, and they bite or ram each other when competing for territories. Reproductive females develop stripes along their bodies, which communicates their readiness to reproduce and helps them avoid aggression from males. Dollar sunfish may also exhibit courtship behaviors similar to longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), a closely-related sunfish species. Male longear sunfish perform visual displays to attract females, swimming quickly between their nest sites and nearby females until a female approaches the nest and deposits its eggs. Males also make grunting or popping noises during these courtship displays.

Dollar sunfish perceive their environment through visual, chemical, acoustic, and tactile cues. They have a lateral line system to detect pressure changes in water, which likely helps them detect prey, predators, and important changes in the water column. Dollar sunfish also have color vision and a well-developed olfactory system, both of which help them forage and avoid predators. (Gerald, 1971; Maryland Tidewater News, 1949; Ross, et al., 2001)

Food Habits

Dollar sunfish are generalist predators, opportunistically eating any arthropods, worms, or fish that are small enough to fit in their mouths. Dollar sunfish have small mouths, with gape widths ranging from around 2 to 6 mm, so they feed on small prey. Common prey items include crustaceans, aquatic insect larvae, and small fish larvae. Juvenile dollar sunfish have also been observed eating other dollar sunfish eggs. A 2012 study on the stomach contents of dollar sunfish in the Everglades found that fly larvae (order Diptera) were present in 53.6% of analyzed stomachs, followed by dragonfly larvae (order Odonata) at 27.5% and amphipods (order Amphipoda) at 26.1%. Other prey that was present in less that 10% of the stomachs analyzed included mollusks (phylum Mollusca) at 8.7% and decapods (order Decapoda) at 1.4%. In captivity, dollar sunfish will eat a wider variety of foods than they encounter naturally. In addition to eating worms, crustaceans, and insects, captive dollar sunfish are also reported to eat prey such as oysters. (Bransky, 2012; Bransky and Dorn, 2013; Rice, 1997; Ross, et al., 2001; Schable, 2002; Willson and Hopkins, 2011a; Willson and Hopkins, 2011b)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • insects
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans


Dollar sunfish serve as prey for birds and large fish. Aerial predators are a large risk to adults and larvae during the breeding season, when dollar sunfish are active in shallow water. Adult males abandon their nests when they perceive aerial threats, leaving any eggs they are guarding at risk of being eaten. However, males return more quickly to nests with eggs compared to empty nests. Common bird predators include green herons (Butorides striata), great blue herons (Ardea herodias), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon), snowy egrets (Egretta thula), and wood storks (Mycteria americana). Dollar sunfish eggs, larvae, and juveniles are also susceptible to predation by larger fish, including mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki), largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides), and even large dollar sunfish. Small predatory invertebrates, such as dragonfly larvae, may also eat eggs or recently-hatched larvae. In some parts of their range, young dollar sunfish also serve as prey for invasive African jewelfish (Hemichromis letournexi).

Dollar sunfish have several physical and behavioral adaptations that help them avoid predation. Females and juveniles are relatively dull in color, which helps them avoid detection, and males lose some of their bright coloration outside of the breeding season for the same reason. Dollar sunfish also have spines on their dorsal and anal fins, which may harm predators that attempt to swallow them whole. Dollar sunfish tend to select habitats with dense aquatic vegetation, and outside of breeding season they move to deeper waters. Both of these behaviors help them avoid detection, especially by aerial predators. (Belfiore and Schofield, 2019; Rice, 1997; Winkelman, 1996)

Ecosystem Roles

Dollar sunfish are generalist predators, so they likely play a role in controlling the populations of various worms, insects, and other aquatic arthropods. They also serve as prey for several species of semi-aquatic birds and larger fish.

Dollar sunfish serve as hosts for a number of parasites, including acanthocephalans (e.g., Pomphorhynchus lucyi, Neoechinorhynchus clyindrantum), myxozoans (e.g., Myxobolus lepomis), and trematodes (e.g., Actinocleidus unguis, Cledodiscus bedardi, Cleidodiscus chelatus, Crepidostomum cooperi, Haplocleidus furcatus, Homalometron armatum, Oncocleidus acuminatus, Oncocleidus ferox, Pisciamphistoma reynoldsi, Posthodiplostomum minimum, Rhipidocotyle septapapillata, Urocleidus variabilis). (Bransky and Dorn, 2013; Cooke and Philipp, 2009; "Lepomis marginatus dollar sunfish", 2013; Rice, 1997; Rosser, et al., 2017; Williams, et al., 1984; Winkelman, 1996)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Acanthocephala (Pomphorhynchus lucyi)
  • Acanthocephala (Neoechinorhynchus clyindrantum)
  • Trematoda (Actinocleidus unguis)
  • Myxozoa (Myxobolus lepomis)
  • Trematoda (Cledodiscus bedardi)
  • Trematoda (Cleidodiscus chelatus
  • Trematoda (Crepidostomum cooperi)
  • Trematoda (Haplocleidus furcatus)
  • Trematoda (Homalometron armatum)
  • Trematoda (Oncocleidus acuminatus)
  • Trematoda (Oncocleidus ferox)
  • Trematoda (Pisciamphistoma reynoldsi)
  • Trematoda (Posthodiplostomum minimum)
  • Trematoda (Rhipidocotyle septapapillata)
  • Trematoda (Urocleidus variabilis)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Dollar sunfish have a positive economic impact as part of the pet trade. Dollar fish are small and require minimal care, making them suitable aquarium fish. Furthermore, the small size of their mouths means that they are unlikely to eat other aquarium fish. Dollar sunfish are not sought after for sport, but they are considered panfish so they also contribute to the fishing market. (Rice, 1997)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Dollar sunfish have no known negative economic impacts.

Conservation Status

Dollar sunfish are considered a species of least concern on the ICUN Red list. They have no special status on the US Federal List, CITES list, or the State of Michigan list.

Across their range, dollar sunfish populations are considered to be stable, although some populations may be in slow decline. There are no reports of major conservation threats to dollar sunfish populations throughout their range. Consequently, there are no conservation efforts currently in place for dollar sunfish specifically. (NatureServe, 2013)


Sierra Dean (author), Radford University, Candice Amick (editor), Radford University, Katherine Gorman (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


mainly lives in water that is not salty.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


an animal that mainly eats fish


having more than one female as a mate at one time

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.


uses touch to communicate


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate


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