Common Carp

Cyprinus carpio

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Common carp side view photo with black background
Common carp, Cyprinus carpio
Lance Merry
Invasive
Family

Cyprinidae (minnows) in the order Cypriniformes (carps, minnows, and loaches)

Description

The common carp is a heavy-bodied minnow with a long dorsal fin containing 17–21 rays, a stout, saw-toothed spine at the front of both dorsal and anal fins, and two barbels on each side of upper jaw. The back and sides are brassy olive, and the belly is yellowish white. The scales of the back and sides are prominently dark-edged, creating a crosshatched effect. The fins are dusky, often overlain by red on the tail fin and by yellow or orange on the lower fins.

Similar species: A number of other Asian carp have been introduced to North America, and these pose a severe threat to our aquatic ecosystems. For more about the grass, black, bighead, and silver carp, see the Similar Species links below.

Size

Total length: 12–25 inches; weight: 1–8 pounds. One specimen in Missouri weighed 47 pounds.

Habitat and conservation

A native of Asia, this species was introduced to Europe centuries ago and was brought to America as early as 1831. Starting in 1879 and for the next 15 years, it was actively stocked in Missouri and was firmly established by 1895. It is highly adaptable to different habitats but is least abundant in clear, high-gradient streams of the central Ozarks. Large streams, natural lakes, and impoundments are preferred, especially in highly productive waters. In streams, adults prefer deeper pools.

Foods

These omnivores eat a variety of animal and plant material, with aquatic insects forming the most important food source. Feeding peaks in late evening or early morning, sometimes in very shallow water. They feed mostly from the bottom but also suck in objects floating on the surface. Food is probably located more by taste than by sight. Aggressive, active feeders, they often uproot plants and stir up the water, making it more turbid.

image of Common Carp distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide. Most abundant in big rivers, north and west prairie streams, and southeastern lowlands.

Status

One of the most widespread and abundant large fishes in the state. Non-native.

Life cycle

Most spawning occurs from March to June but can continue through early fall. No nest is prepared, and no parental care is given. Eggs are broadcast over logs, rocks, and other submerged objects. Few common carp live more than 12 years in the wild, though in captivity they can live nearly 50 years.

Human connections

Many people eat carp, and the fish can put up a fight equal to that of any game fish of similar size, so their sporting qualities should be more widely recognized. Carp can be taken on a variety of baits, including dough balls, whole kernel corn, and worms.

Some people think that common carp are a type of goldfish, but the two are indeed separate species. But both are in the minnow family, and both came from Asia.

The ornamental carp with bright orange, red, white, and other color forms that is commonly kept in outdoor fishponds used to be considered a subspecies of common carp. Today, scientists consider these ornamental fish to be a separate species, the Amur carp, Cyprinus rubrofuscus. You may know this species by its Japanese names, koi (carp) or nishikigoi (brocaded carp). The Chinese were aquaculturing Amur carp for food and for various colors as far back as the fourth century AD, and the Japanese started breeding it for color in the 1820s.

At least one Lake of the Ozarks tourist attraction tried to make the most of the presence of common carp near its dock by offering fish food pellets in gumball dispensers and posting signs inviting visitors to "feed the bugle-mouth bass."

Ecosystem connections

Because of their abundance, common carp are often accused of competing for food and space and eating the eggs of more desirable fishes. Their feeding clouds the water and uproots vegetation. Although there is truth in these complaints, the carp’s nuisance qualities may be somewhat exaggerated.

The northern pike is like a larger version of redfin (grass) and chain pickerels. It is stocked in Missouri reservoirs in part to effectively control the large stocks of carp and gizzard shad present in those waters.