Banded Sculpin

Cottus carolinae


Image of a banded scuplin
Joseph R. Tomelleri. Used with permission.

Cottidae (sculpins) in the order Scorpaeniformes (mail-cheeked fishes)


Sculpins have flattened bodies, large mouths, and enlarged pectoral fins. They can modify their color to match their background. They have large heads that taper abruptly into the rather slender body. They lack scales but often have small prickles on head and body. This species is reddish brown, without strong mottling, but with well-defined dark bars across back and sides. There is a broad, distinct vertical bar at the base of the tail fin (the Ozark and mottled sculpins don't have this bar).


Adult length: 2½–5 inches.

Habitat and conservation

Sculpins live in springs, spring branches, spring-fed streams, and caves. They are bottom dwellers and lack swim bladders. Their body shape and fins enable them to maintain position in a stream’s swift current. They spend most of their lives in less than 100 yards of stream. A rather strange-looking freshwater fish, it belongs to a family and an order whose members are mostly marine — and indeed, the banded sculpin looks quite a bit like its cousins, which sometimes end up in saltwater aquariums.


Sculpins have very large mouths and are able to swallow prey items (including other sculpins) nearly as large as themselves. They feed mostly at night on crayfish, immature stages of aquatic insects, small fish, and snails. They often capture their prey by ambush.

image of Banded Sculpin Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

The most widely distributed Missouri sculpin. Occurs in all the major Ozark stream systems and north into Lincoln County.


Although this is the most widely distributed sculpin in the state, the other species (Ozark and mottled sculpins) attain higher population densities where they occur. The grotto sculpin, formerly considered an unusual form of banded sculpin, has recently been declared a separate species. The grotto sculpin lives in caves and has specific adaptations for cave life.

Life cycle

Sculpins spend days under rocks and emerge to feed mostly at night. Mating and nesting is in spring, with males excavating cavities beneath rocks and logs and then carefully guarding the few-hundred eggs until they hatch, which is usually about a month later. The maximum life span of this species is probably 6 years or more.

Human connections

Sculpins have been accused of eating trout eggs, a charge that is largely without foundation. Occasionally, they are caught accidentally by anglers on worms, and they are sometimes used as bait.

Ecosystem connections

Anyone who has had an aquarium knows the importance of a bottom-feeder! Just as animals on dry land occupy their various habitats and ecological roles, so do animals under the water. This fish, therefore, specializes in eating smaller creatures that also creep around on the bottoms of streams.