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2010 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 9(4):699–710
Observations of Physical and Environmental
Characteristics of Suwannee Bass Spawning in a
Spring-fed Florida River
Will A. Strong1,*, Eric J. Nagid1, and Travis Tuten1
Abstract - We describe physical and environmental characteristics associated with
Micropterus notius (Suwannee Bass) spawning in the Ichetucknee River, fl. We located
24 Suwannee Bass nests from March to June (75% found May and June). Nests
were found in relatively shallow waters (mean = 95 cm) with substrates dominated
by organic material (63%). Suwannee Bass nests were located near cover, in lowflow areas (mean velocity = 0.01 m/s), and at a mean temperature of 21.7 °C. We did
not detect any relationships from regressions between the frequency of nesting and
temperature, photoperiod, river stage, discharge or lunar cycle. Ninety-two percent
of nests contained submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which are likely important
to nesting areas as stream-velocity refuges that reduce sediment wash-in and egg disturbance
during spawning. Descriptions of spawning habitat of this range-restricted
species have implications for conservation and management decisions.
Micropterus notius Bailey and Hubbs (Suwannee Bass) is a species
of black bass that was described by Bailey and Hubbs (1949) from the
Ichetucknee River, fl. This species, which inhabits the Suwannee River
and Ochlockonee River drainages of Florida and Georgia (Bass 1974,
Bass and Hitt 1973, Hellier 1967, Keefer and Ober 1977, MacCrimmon
and Robbins 1975), has the smallest natural range of all Micropterus species
(Koppleman and Garret 2002). Recently, Suwannee Bass have been
found in the Wacissa (Cailteux et al. 2002a), St. Marks, and Wakulla rivers
in northwestern Florida, although these populations may have been
introduced (Cailteux et al. 2002b). Because of their relatively small range,
Suwannee Bass are considered a species of special concern in Florida
(Chapter 68A-27.005, Florida Administrative Code [FAC]) and rare in
Georgia (Chapter 391–4–10–0.9, Georgia Administrative Code).
Suwannee Bass are sympatric with the endemic and widespread
M. salmoides Lacepède (Largemouth Bass). Largemouth Bass have been
studied extensively and are generally considered habitat and feeding generalists.
In contrast, relatively few studies have been conducted on Suwannee
Bass (Bass 1974; Bass and Hitt 1973; Bonvechio et al. 2005; Cailteux et
al. 2002a, 2002b; Hurst et al. 1975; Keefer and Ober 1977; Schramm and
1Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research
Institute, 7922 NW 71st Street, Gainesville, fl32653. *Corresponding author - Will.
700 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
Maceina 1986; Smitherman and Ramsey 1972; Warren and Nagid 2008).
While there is an abundance of published literature regarding Largemouth
Bass spawning, there is very little information regarding the spawning of
Suwannee Bass in lotic environments.
Physical characteristics of nests for members in the Centrarchidae
family have been commonly studied (Allan and Romero 1975, Bain
and Helrich 1983, Bozek et al. 2002, Bruno et al. 1990, Lukas and Orth
1995, Phelps et al. 2009). In general, nests are circular depressions in the
substrate, and located in relatively shallow waters along the littoral portion
of a stream or lake. Environmental characteristics most associated
with timing of spawning for centrarchid species have been temperature
(Hurst et al. 1975, Kaya and Hasler 1972, Phelps et al. 2009, Smitherman
and Ramsey 1972), photoperiod (Carlson 1973, Kaya and Hasler 1972,
Mischke and Morris 1997), and water level and discharge (Graham and
Orth 1986, Lukas and Orth 1995). Warren (2009) provides a concise summary
of research regarding Suwannee Bass reproduction, which describes
aspects such as the timing of spawning, fecundity, and egg size. Aside
from Hurst et al. (1975) providing a general description of nests as shallow,
circular depressions near stream edges, the spawning habits (e.g.,
habitat and flow use) and nest characteristics of Suwannee Bass in stream
habitats have not been described.
As management agencies develop conservation efforts for Suwannee
Bass (FFWCC 2005), as well as water-conservation rules that consider fish
and wildlife habitats (Subsection 373.042 (2), Florida Statutes; Chapter
62–40.473, FAC), scientific studies examining habitat use by fish and wildlife
have become increasingly important. Deviation from the natural flow
regime has been shown to affect fish community composition (Bain et al.
1988, Marchetti and Moyle 2001) and generally benefits species with wider
environmental tolerances (Copp 1990). Given the limited range of the Suwannee
Bass within and among a small number of fluvial systems, there is
potential, with flow reductions, for an ecological shift towards Largemouth
Bass if physical habitats of Suwannee Bass are not identified and managed
for conservation (Warren and Nagid 2008). Research characterizing nestsite
selection under natural flows can provide important information for
future management decisions. Therefore, the objectives of this study were
to describe the physical and environmental characteristics of Suwannee Bass
nests and the timing of spawning.
The Ichetucknee River is an 8.85–km–long spring-fed river in Columbia
and Suwannee counties, fl. The river is characterized by hard water, alkaline
pH, minimal color and turbidity (Nordlie 1990), and a mean discharge of
10.22 m3/s (Rosenau et al. 1977). Approximately 5.6 km of the upper portion
2010 W.A. Strong, E.J. Nagid, and T. Tuten 701
of the river is located within the Ichetucknee Springs State Park, of which
4.8 km was included in our study area. The study area contains three distinct
reaches: the Headspring Reach, Rice Marsh Reach, and Floodplain Reach
(Fig. 1; Dutoit 1979, Kurz et al. 2003). The Headspring Reach includes the
origin of the river, Ichetucknee Head Spring, and is characterized by relatively
shallow depths (1–2 m) and a narrow channel width (10–15 m), with
a prominent tree canopy (Acer spp. [maples]) and expansive coverage of
submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV; e.g., Sagittaria kurziana Glück [Strapleaf
Sagittaria] and Vallisneria americana Michx [Eelgrass]) and emergent
vegetation (e.g., Zizania aquatica L. [Wild-rice]). The Rice Marsh Reach, or
middle reach, is the widest portion of the river, averaging 60 m across. The
main river channel in this reach composes roughly 10–20 m of the width and
is characterized by swift flow, depths of 2–3 m, and vast coverage of Eelgrass
and Strap-leaf Sagittaria. The remaining 40–50 m of width is primarily
open tree canopy with expansive benthic coverage of Wild-rice, Chara spp.
(muskgrass), and Ceratophyllum demersum L. (Coontail), and water depths
Figure 1. Location of sampling reaches on the Ichetucknee River, fl.
702 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
generally less than 1 m. The Floodplain Reach, the most downstream portion of
our study area, is similar to the Headspring Reach relative to tree canopy
and SAV coverage. However, the Floodplain Reach canopy is dominated
by Taxodium distichum (L.) Rich. (Bald Cypress), and the channel is wider
(15–20 m) and deeper (2–3 m).
We used mask and snorkel to locate Suwannee Bass nests from 17
February through 23 June 2006 (17 trips in 19 weeks). Nests were only
included in the study if Suwannee Bass were observed guarding the nest.
Although a common definition of spawning is the act of depositing eggs
(Holmes 1979), we define it in this paper as all activity related to nesting
and reproduction (i.e., eggs or fry), including nests where we found
parental Suwannee Bass but no other evidence of reproduction. Water depth
was measured from the water surface to the center of the nest, and nest
depth was measured from the center of the nest to the top of the nest. Nest
diameter was calculated as the mean of the nest length, parallel to the channel,
and width, perpendicular to the channel. Percent area covered (PAC;
≤100%) was estimated using a 1–m square to describe the immediate area
within and around the nest and was defined as the percentage of the stream
floor covered by structure (e.g., macrophytes, snags) within the square.
Substrate was described qualitatively (e.g., organic debris, sand). Stream
velocity (m/s) was measured at the upstream side and adjacent to the rim of
the nest with a Marsh-McBirney™ Flo-mate 2000 portable velocity meter.
An Onset Hobo temperature logger was placed in each of the three river
reaches near the shoreline at 0.5–1 m depths and was set to record water
temperatures every 6 h during our sampling period. Mean temperatures for
the three reaches were compared using a Kruskal-Wallis test, where P <
0.05 was considered significant. Pair-wise comparisons were made using
a Wilcoxon two-sample test with a Bonferroni adjustment. All statistical
analyses were conducted with SAS (SAS Institute 2002).
Photoperiod (duration of daylight in hours) and lunar cycle data for our
study period were obtained from the United States Naval Observatory’s
Astronomical Applications Department website (USNO-AAD 2007). Data
were retrieved for the town of Fort White, which is approximately 6 km
from the Ichetucknee River. River stage (m) and discharge (m3/s) data were
obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS 2007) using the
Dampier’s Landing gauge (USGS 02322698) for the Floodplain Reach and
the Headspring gauge (USGS 02322685) for the Headspring Reach. We
used linear regression to identify relationships between nest frequency and
temperature, photoperiod, lunar cycle, river stage, and river discharge. Data
included in the regressions were from the first date a nest was observed until
the last date a nest was observed.
2010 W.A. Strong, E.J. Nagid, and T. Tuten 703
We located 24 Suwannee Bass nests: 14 were located in the Floodplain
Reach, nine in the Headspring Reach, and one at the base of the Rice
Marsh Reach. Over half of the nests (54%) were found in two sections
of our study area. Of the nine total nests found in the Headspring Reach,
six were at the launch site for recreational users. This is an area that is
heavily used by canoeists, kayakers, and people on rafts; is 1–1.5 m deep;
and is primarily composed of sand, organic material, and rock bottom,
encircled with SAV. In the Floodplain Reach, we found 50% of the nests
in a small depositional area along the margin of the river with a substrate
largely dominated with a thick layer of mud and organic materials (detritus,
leaves, and woody debris).
Suwannee Bass began nesting in early March (first nest located 10
March) and ceased in early June (last nest located 5 June). Nests were
found in water 33–137 cm deep (mean = 95 cm) (Table 1). Nests were relatively
circular in shape, with a mean diameter of 36 cm and mean nest
depth of 7 cm. Mean PAC was 48% (range = 5–90%) and was primarily
composed of submerged aquatic vegetation (68%; e.g., Strap-leaf Sagittaria,
Ludwigia repens J.R. Forst. [Red Ludwigia], filamentous algae) and
woody material (27%; e.g., snags, fine woody debris). In general, new
nests were fanned down into organic substrate or sandy bottom, depending
on nest location. Nest substrate was dominated by organic material
(63%); however, sand, leaf litter, fine woody debris, pebbles, limestone,
and shell were also used.
Suwannee Bass used low-flow areas for nest sites: stream velocity at
75% of the nests was ≤0.01 m/s (mean = 0.01 m/s). Mean temperatures of
the Headspring (HR), Rice Marsh (RMR), and Floodplain (FR) reaches
were 21.64 °C, 21.58 °C, and 21.63 °C, respectively, and were statistically
different (Kruskal-Wallis: χ2 = 17.773; P < 0.001; Fig. 2). However,
these differences were so small as to be biologically insignificant and were
likely due to the large sample size (n = 1016) and relative lack in variance
(SEHR = 0.0062, SERMR = 0.0082, SEFR = 0.0414). Therefore, although
statistically significant, we chose to average the temperatures of the three
Table 1. Mean, standard error, and range of physical and environmental metrics associated with
Suwannee Bass nests in the Ichetucknee River, fl, from March to June 2006. n is the number
of nests used for each given metric and PAC is percent area covered.
Variable n Mean SE Range
Water depth (cm) 24 94.7 6.2 33.0–137.0
Nest diameter (cm) 22 36.2 2.4 14.5–57.0
Nest depth (cm) 22 7.2 0.7 2.7–15.0
PAC (%) 24 48 5 5–90
Stream velocity (m/s) 24 0.01 0.002 0.00–0.04
Temperature (°C) 24 21.69 0.03 21.30–21.70
Daylight (h) 24 13.4 0.2 11.8–14.0
704 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
loggers. During our study, the mean water temperature of the Ichetucknee
River ranged from 20.8 to 21.9 °C, and the mean water temperature at the
time nests were located was 21.7 °C (Table 1). We found no relationship
Figure 2. Daily temperatures (4/logger/day) from 17 February to 23 June 2006 in the
three reaches of the Ichetucknee River, fl.
2010 W.A. Strong, E.J. Nagid, and T. Tuten 705
between nesting frequency and water temperature (R2 = 0.096). We plotted
nest frequency, temperature (°C), and photoperiod (h), against date in order
look at how nest frequency occurred with these environmental parameters
(Fig. 3). Temperature in Figure 3 is represented as the trend line of mean
daily temperature. Photoperiod during nesting ranged from 11.8 to 14 h of
daylight, and of the 24 nests, 75% were found during the months of May
and June (range = 13.4–14 h). Although nest frequency was highest in May
as photoperiod was increasing, nest frequency was not related to day length
(R2 = 0.198). Similarly, no relationships were detected between the timing
or frequency of nesting with river stage, river discharge, or lunar cycle; river
stage and discharge were fairly homogenous throughout our study.
We found eggs or fry on 13 of 24 nests. The first reproductive nests were
found on 12 May, approximately two months after the first nests were recorded
(Fig. 3). The last reproductive nests were found on 5 June. Early in
nest development, guarding males fanned out nests so that little to no organic
material or algae remained, or down to relatively compact organic substrate.
Through time, however, nests with guarding males and eggs or fry were
found to be covered with organic debris, where the nest proper was often
difficult to distinguish from the surrounding river bed.
Spawning of Suwannee Bass in the Ichetucknee River was characteristic
of other Micropterus relative to nest construction, nest depth, and guarding
males, as well as relationships to stream flow in lotic habitats (Bruno
et. al 1990, Chew 1974, Horel 1951, Hurst et. al 1975, Iguchi et al. 2004,
Lukas and Orth 1995, Smitherman and Ramsey 1972, Warren 2009). Nests
in the Ichetucknee River were principally located in two main areas in the
Headspring and Floodplain reaches. Although we observed nesting activity
of other centrarchids in the Rice Marsh Reach, Suwannee Bass nests in
this reach were few by comparison. Nests were found in relatively shallow
depths and were protected from high water velocities. Consequently, the nest
substrate was mostly composed of flocculent organic sediments, and firm
sandy substrate does not appear to be a habitat feature necessary for Suwannee
Suwannee Bass spawned in areas with a broad range in PAC; however,
nearly 50% of the area adjacent to the nests contained some form of cover.
Twenty-two of 24 nests contained SAV adjacent to nests, as opposed to eight
nests with woody debris or leaf litter. Of the 22 nests constructed near SAV,
17 contained Strap-leaf Sagittaria and Eelgrass, two submerged aquatic macrophytes
of conservation concern in spring-fed systems (Kurz et al. 2003).
Proximity of nests to SAV in the Ichetucknee River suggested that aquatic
plants may provide important velocity refuges that reduce sediment influx
and egg disturbance during spawning.
706 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 9, No. 4
Figure 3. Frequency of non-reproductive and reproductive Suwannee Bass nests
found in the Ichetucknee River, flfrom 17 February to 23 June 2006, with the mean
daily temperature trend (°C) and photoperiod (h). 0’s above the x-axis indicate sampling
trips with no nests found.
Bass and Hitt (1973) found that Suwannee Bass began spawning when
temperatures reached 18–19 ºC and spawning occurred from February to
June, with a peak in April and May. Suwannee Bass collected from the
2010 W.A. Strong, E.J. Nagid, and T. Tuten 707
Suwannee River system and stocked into ponds in Alabama spawned at
20 ºC (Smitherman and Ramsey 1972). Our findings were similar in that
spawning occurred from March to June and peaked in May at a mean water
temperature of 21 ºC. The mean temperature of the Ichetucknee River
increased by only 1.1 ºC from February to June; however, the nests in the
Headspring and Floodplain reaches underwent differences in diurnal and
overall temperature patterns. While the spawning area near the headspring
experienced nearly homogenous temperature throughout the study period,
the spawning area in the floodplain experienced a relatively wide range in
temperature. Bass and Hitt (1973) surmised that a variable other than temperature,
whether environmental or chemical, must be driving reproduction
in the Ichetucknee River. Caldwell et al. (1957) reported that the environment
in Silver Springs, fl, was constant in temperature and nearly constant
in water chemistry, but had seasonal changes in light intensity and general
productivity. They surmised that even in constant temperature, there were
factors in the life history of Largemouth Bass that caused periods of increased
reproduction to coincide with periods of greater food production.
Suwannee Bass spawned in areas with homogenous temperature and in
areas with variable temperature, suggesting that water temperature may be
a cue that is poorly understood or less important than other environmental
factors in the Ichetucknee River.
New information regarding rare species such as the Suwannee Bass
is necessary to guide conservation and management strategies. As water
demands increase, managers of these resources rely on the best available
information to balance the needs of people and fish and wildlife. Although
we described some aspects of Suwannee Bass spawning, there is a need for
more detailed life-history studies in association with the habitat use of this
species in order to provide fish and water managers with the best available
information to aide in their management decisions. Determining Suwannee
Bass spawning-site selection, such as available habitat versus utilized
habitat, may provide valuable information as it relates to future water management
actions and this species of concern.
We thank the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for their cooperation
within the Ichetucknee Springs State Park. This study was funded by a Florida
State Wildlife Grant (Project No. 98502532195).
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