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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Spoonhead Sculpin - Cottus ricei

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3
(see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status

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State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
The spoonhead sculpin is presently listed as a species of special concern (SOC) in MT due to its limited distribution (S3, vulnerable-meaning they are at risk for potential declines in population, range or habitat even though they are abundant in some areas) (MNHP 2004). This species is similarly listed as an SOC in four of the other 14 states or provinces where it presently occurs. It is thought to be extirpated in New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania (Nature Serve 2014).
General Description
The Spoonhead Sculpin is another native Montana Fish of Special Concern due to its limited Montana distribution (Montana AFS Species Status Account). Spoonhead Sculpin are found only in the St. Mary and Waterton river drainages of Glacier National Park, which ultimately drain into Hudson Bay. They inhabit deep lakes, as well as streams, and provide forage for Lake Trout, Burbot, and other species.

For a comprehensive review of the ecology, conservation status, threats, and management of this and other Montana fish species of concern, please see Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society Species of Concern Status Reviews.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Spoonhead Sculpin are light brown with two to four saddles under the second dorsal fin. The underside is whitish. Spoonhead sculpin are scaleless with a complete lateral line. The mouth of a spoonhead is small and contains no palatine teeth. Most specimens have 13-15 fin rays on the anal fin (Brown, 1971). The body is slender. One pore is located on the midline under the tip of the chin. Prickles, often dense, may cover the entire body, but sometimes are sparse or absent. No other Montana sculpin has the "bison horn" spine on the gill cover.

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions


Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
The extensive Canadian Range of the spoonhead sculpin includes the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence and Arctic basins from southern Quebec to the Mackenzie River drainage, Northwest Territories, Yukon, and northeastern British Columbia, and southern Alberta (Page and Burr 2011, Figure 1). Distribution of spoonhead sculpin in the United States includes the Great Lakes region, northern Ohio, Minnesota and Montana.

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 5

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density



(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Habitat includes the rocky bottoms of swift streams to larger rivers, and the shallows and deep water of lakes. They have been taken at depths of over 100 feet.

Food Habits
Spoonhead sculpin are most likely feeding on planktonic crustaceans in deep lakes and aquatic insect larvae in inshore regions.

They are probably important forage for deep-dwelling fishes. Spoonhead scuplin have been identified as an important food source for burbot, northern pike, and lake trout (Roberts 1988).

Reproductive Characteristics
Spawning can occur in late summer to early fall in shallow gravel beds along the edge of lakes, streams and rivers (Roberts 1988, Sullivan et. al 2009).

A primary focus of managing the spoonhead sculpin in Montana should be to more accurately determine the population status of the species. Efforts should be made to describe its complete range, as well as to estimate abundance at locations where its presence is currently known. Populations should be routinely monitored to describe population trends over time.

Threats or Limiting Factors
Global climate change poses a significant threat to all freshwater aquatic species, especially cold-water adapted ones. U.S. Geological Survey researchers predict that slight increases in average annual air temperatures could significantly change the quality, temperature and quantity of the natural water systems around the globe (Kloepfer, 2002). The impact these changes may have on a sculpin species is unclear, especially for a glacial relict species with a restricted range such as spoonhead sculpin.

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Citation for data on this website:
Spoonhead Sculpin — Cottus ricei.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from