Spang, Leioptherapon unicolor (Günther, 1859)

Image: Fyke netting (Courtesy of Oliver Scholz)


Written by: Iain ‘Listy’ Ellis

‘Listy, pen me something quirky for themorayslair’ I was asked….apparently it’s a place on the web to share thoughts and experiences with fellow fish nerds. Crikey, that’s dangerous…. I think to myself… #quirky and #something to do with fish and #Listyboy…this could bring back a whole raft of suppressed memories. By the way, Listyboy – that’s me. Ebb named me that in my first month working as a techo in the strange but alluring world of freshwater ecology out Mildura way. That was back in 1998, but like a Carp to sweetcorn, the nick-name stuck. I used to tick off items for field trips on lists before we set off into the empty. I still work out here where the Murray and Darling rivers meet (give or take a couple of hundred river miles in any direction).

But I digress – he wants a fishy article.

A ‘Species spotlight’ perhaps? Although I spend a lot of time working with the threatened Murray hardyhead (a freshwater fish that – get this – prefers salty water!), I choose the Spangled perch as my favourite. Although it is one of Australia’s most widespread fish, on the eastern side of the country, it’s rarely detected as far south as Menindee on the Darling River. In fact, according to the texts, prior to 2010 there had only been four records of it from the Murray River, and three of those were after the famous monster flood of 1956. Apparently it’s a bit cold down here for them in winter and as they are rarely detected far south of “the Menindee line”, therefore I shouldn’t really know much about Spangs.

I’d heard stories of course. Spangs are tough and live in rivers, lakes, ponds, puddles, tanks, wet wheel ruts and pretty much any wet-spot across the top half of Australia (e.g. Unmack 2001, Kerezsy et al. 2013). They can move quickly from/between said wet-spots at the smell of rain just to reach another waterhole before any of their mates. Okay, so I embellish a little – they generally wait for the rain to fall, but they are pretty amazing none the less. Until recently some folks still believed they could aestivate (survive dry spells cocooned in the dirt) as they turned up in water that seemed unreachable. We now know they don’t aestivate, although, they can jump from a tank, slap their way down a 20 meter hallway before almost succumbing to desiccation in a dusty corner after half an hour. I know this because I saw it happen – the same fish, several times. We called him Jumpy-slappy, and yes he survived exposure for half an hour in the dust, and recovered when replaced in his tank. Spangs are even reported to be transferred about the place as “rains of fishes”, whereby swirling eddies of desert wind siphon them out of one wet patch and drop them elsewhere.

I felt myself lucky to glimpse a couple of little Spangs in the northern Menindee Lakes back in the1990’s, flushed down the Darling River to our waiting nets in a small flood. I was with Ebner actually– the same trip a freak storm created a six-metre swell, shipwrecking me and Ebb on the distant side of a pretty remote lake. My life flashed before my eyes back then. Not because of the storm, but because we had skipped lunch, and I could see Ebb weighing up the value of hunting for a raw Carp, or gnawing one of my spindly arms – if only he could find a decent rock in the sand dunes with which to dispatch me humanely (and in adherence to our animal ethics permit).

But I digress again…

Yep, I thought those two scrawny Spangs might be the last I’d ever see, along with the lone Hyrtl’s catfish Ebb excitedly pulled from a net that same week (still the only one recoded down these parts by the way!). Clearly, I wasn’t eaten, but I didn’t see another Spang for almost two decades. Not until 2010 in fact. We got a flood. Not a massive one, but significant given the preceding decade of drought. By now I had a bit of a feel for fish in my part of the world, and I hoped like billy-oh we might stumble across a Spang or two when the flood waters reached the lower Darling, and eventually the Murray River at Wentworth.


That Hyrtl’s catfish, and a pretty little Spang

And we did! Little Chip (Danielle, a smashing young fisho I’ve had the pleasure of working with the last 5 years or so) returned smiling from monitoring surveys south of Menindee, rewarding my prayers with news of not just a couple, but loads of Spangs in the flood waters. In a world where small fish like gudgeons or smelt almost always dominate our catch, Chip returned hauls for the next couple of years in which Spangs were frequently the dominant fish!. But they weren’t just in the lower Darling. We got Spangs in the Murray River from down near the river mouth (the Coorong in SA) up as far as the Hattah Lakes near Euston. It was becoming clear what salty northern fishos like Hairy Balcombe and Adam “the red-eyed-blue-arse” Kersxkzfgy meant when they said Spangs had “strong dispersal capabilities” (see. Kerezsy et al. 2013). We saw first hand how they fearlessly navigate shallow drains or pipes and swim up slippery hills and along rainy roads during rain events – to reach a puddle ahead of their mates.


A full Lake Bijiji in 1997

What still amazes me though is the fact Spangs still hang around down here south of the Menindee Line –two years after the floods have subsided. That’s why they are my favourite fish. They make me rethink what I thought I knew.


References & further reading

Kerezsy, A., Balcombe, S. R, Tischler, M., and Arthington, A. H. (2013). Fish movement strategies in an ephemeral river in the Simpson Desert, Australia. Australian Journal of Ecology 60, 45–57.

Llewellyn, L. C. (1973). Spawning, development, and temperature tolerance of the spangled perch, Madigania unicolor (Gunther), from inland waters in Australia. Australian Journal of Freshwater and Marine Research 24, 73-94.

Unmack, P. J. (2001). Fish persistence and fluvial geomorphology in central Australia. Journal of Arid Environments 49, 653-659.