By Ethan Hatchett

When it comes to freshwater wildlife, Georgia ranks in the top three states in the U.S., trailing only Tennessee and Alabama. Yet while the state’s big, sprawling rivers like the Chattahoochee and Altamaha tend to dominate the conversation about diversity, many smaller watersheds rate just as important.

The Tallapoosa River is one of these overlooked watersheds. The small river in northwestern Georgia stretches 265 miles from the southern Appalachians to Alabama. Many scarce and imperiled species make their home in this unassuming but biodiverse waterway.

The lipstick darter is one of them. Growing only about 2.5 inches long and sporting bright red lips and a bluish-green body, this darter is as beautiful as it is imperiled.

Lipstick darter (Brett Albanese/DNR)

Lipstick darters prefer shallow, fast-moving riffles layered with gravel and cobble in rivers and streams. The rocky substrates allow the fish to spawn and safely raise young. The darter’s slender shape – contrasted with its blunt, triangular head – is well equipped to maneuver among rushing waters and rocks to search out its diet of aquatic insects and avoid predators. Established forests appear to be linked to the success of the species, with lush canopies overhanging sites where the fish has been documented.

Those sites are all in the Tallapoosa. This watershed is the only place the lipstick darter is found, making the species more vulnerable to habitat changes. Sediment runoff from construction, the loss of streamside forest and habitat fragmentation from dams along the river all pose significant threats and led to the lipstick darter being state-listed as endangered.

Lipstick darter habitat (Ethan Hatchett/DNR)

Lipstick darter habitat (Ethan Hatchett/DNR)

The lipstick darter is one of many high-priority species for conservation in Georgia’s State Wildlife Action Plan. This comprehensive conservation strategy, which is undergoing a periodic revision, lists 640 native animal and plant species as priorities for conserving statewide. The 150 conservation actions recommended in the plan focus restoration and protection efforts where they’re most needed and most effective.

Luckily for the lipstick darter, DNR along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , Kennesaw State University, The Nature Conservancy, The Conservation Fund and several Georgia counties are working on a project that will benefit the fish. The Dugdown Corridor is a land conservation effort aimed at protecting and conserving vulnerable species in the Tallapoosa watershed. If protected, these lands would provide a much-needed buffer for the darter’s critical habitat, along with many other benefits for wildlife.

The lipstick darter is one of Georgia’s most distinctive fishes. This colorful creature highlights the importance of even small watersheds and the impact seemingly small changes can have on such delicate, one-of-a-kind ecosystems.

Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.

Top: Male (left) and female lipstick darters (Ethan Hatchett/DNR)