Desert Sucker - Illustration by George Maleski

Desert Sucker
Catostomus clarki


The desert sucker (Catostomus clarki) is native to Arizona. Depending on habitat, fish can be 8 to 31 inches in length and can weigh up to a little over four pounds. The body is sharply bi-colored: olive-brown on top and deep-yellow below. Scales on the upper half have dark spots which form faint, dashed lines. The sucker's lower lip is about three times as thick as the upper lip. Many people confuse large individuals with carp because of similar coloration. This species was used extensively as food by primitive man along streams of the Gila basin, and it presently provides considerable sport for bow-and-arrow and snagging enthusiasts. It also will take a baited hook and gives a slow, determined struggle when taken on light tackle.1

Habitat: The desert sucker can be found in a variety of habitats from warm water rivers to trout streams. It prefers rivers or streams that have deep and quiet, rocky or gravely pools. This species is intolerant of lake conditions created by dams.

Range: The desert sucker occurs in suitable habitats of the lower Colorado River, downstream from the Grand Canyon, generally including tributary streams of the Gila River drainage upstream of Gila, Arizona along with the Virgin River basin in Utah, Arizona and Nevada. The "historic range" included Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Mexico.

Biology: Experimental studies suggest that the desert sucker has a lower tolerance to reduced oxygen than other native stream fishes.

Reproduction: The desert sucker spawns in riffles during late winter or early spring. After hatching, juveniles gather in quiet pools near the banks and move to swifter waters as they mature. Hybrids have been reported between Sonora and Desert suckers.2

Diet: Young desert suckers feed primarily on the larvae of aquatic insects. Adults feed mostly on aquatic plants and parts of plants present along the stream bottom. Feeding is performed predominantly by scraping plant materials off of rocks and small stones.

Status: In 1994, the Desert sucker was listed in the Federal Register as a Category 2 species for consideration to be listed as threatened or endangered.3 In 1996, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) changed the listing of "Federal Candidate" species. The "Category" designation was eliminated and species listed under Categories 2 and 3 were no longer considered candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Currently, this species is now classified by the USFWS as a "Species of Concern."2

Desert Suckers in Pima County: The desert sucker once occurred throughout Arizona, including the Santa Cruz River watershed. This species was eliminated from the area near Tucson by 1937.4 The desert sucker is currently extirpated from all of Pima County, but may still exist along the Santa Cruz River upstream of the county line.



1. Minckley, W. L. 1973. Fishes of Arizona. Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix. pp. 186-192

2. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, et al. 1998. BISON-M: New Mexico Species List/Species Accounts.

3. Federal Register. Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Animal Candidate Review for Listing as Endangered or Threatened Species, Proposed Rule. Department of the Interior. Tuesday, November 15, 1994. 50 CFR Part 17.

4. Zander, M. and Jennings M. 1986. Site Specific Water Quality Criteria Study for the Santa Cruz River. Harding Lawson Associates. Job No. 17,144,010.01. p. 73

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