The Nonindigenous Occurrences section of the NAS species profiles has a new structure. The section is now dynamically updated from the NAS database to ensure that it contains the most current and accurate information. Occurrences are summarized in Table 1, alphabetically by state, with years of earliest and most recent observations, and the tally and names of drainages where the species was observed. The table contains hyperlinks to collections tables of specimens based on the states, years, and drainages selected. References to specimens that were not obtained through sighting reports and personal communications are found through the hyperlink in the Table 1 caption or through the individual specimens linked in the collections tables.

Osmerus mordax
Osmerus mordax
(Rainbow Smelt)
Native Transplant

Copyright Info
Osmerus mordax (Mitchill, 1814)

Common name: Rainbow Smelt

Synonyms and Other Names: Atherina mordax (Mitchill, 1814), Osmerus spectrum (Cope, 1870), American Smelt, Atlantic Smelt, Freshwater Smelt, Leefish.

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: Rainbow Smelt have a silvery, pale green back and a white underside. The sides of the fish are iridescent purple, blue, and pink with a bright silvery stripe.  They have less than 75 scales on the lateral line, which are easily removed. Rainbow Smelt have three characteristic fins, a dorsal in the middle of the back, an adipose, and a deeply forked rear tail fin.  The snout is pointed with well developed, canine-like teeth on the tongue and roof of the mouth. Rainbow Smelt resemble the minnow family (Cyprinidae spp.), Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) and Cisco (C. artedi), however, minnows lack an adipose fin and Lake Whitefish and Cisco have deeper bodies than Rainbow Smelt but no teeth on the roof of their mouths or tongues. See Scott and Crossman (1973); Becker (1983); Smith (1985); Page and Burr (1991).

Size: Adult: 100 mm to 350 mm. Egg: 0.90 mm to 1.3 mm (Scott and Crossman 1973)

Native Range: Atlantic drainages from Lake Melville, Newfoundland, to Delaware River, and Pennsylvania; Arctic and Pacific drainages from Bathurst Inlet, Northwest Territories, to Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Also, Pacific drainages of Asia (Page and Burr 1991). The origin of Osmerus mordax in Lake Ontario is disputed, as they are thought to be either native or introduced from the Atlantic through the Erie Canal (Mills et al. 1993). Another alternative is that O. mordax migrated downstream from the upper Great Lakes, where it is considered nonindigenous.

Native range data for this species provided in part by NatureServe NS logo
Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs) Explained
Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences:

Table 1. States with nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Osmerus mordax are found here.

StateFirst ObservedLast ObservedTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
AR197819813Lower Mississippi-Greenville; Lower Mississippi-Memphis; Lower St. Francis
CO197319986Cache La Poudre; Colorado Headwaters; Fountain; Middle South Platte-Cherry Creek; Purgatoire; South Platte
CT193019403New England Region; Outlet Connecticut River; Shetucket River
GA197119711Upper Chattahoochee
ID193019622Upper Salmon; Upper Snake
IL1923201111Cahokia-Joachim; Chicago; Copperas-Duck; Des Plaines; Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien; Lower Illinois-Lake Chautauqua; Lower Illinois-Senachwine Lake; Lower Ohio-Bay; Upper Illinois; Upper Mississippi-Cape Girardeau
IN192319993Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien; Silver-Little Kentucky
IA197519873Big Papillion-Mosquito; Blackbird-Soldier; Keg-Weeping Water
KS197820113Independence-Sugar; Little Arkansas; Tarkio-Wolf
KY197819862Lower Mississippi-Memphis; Upper Green
LA197919791Lower Mississippi-Baton Rouge
ME1965201121Allagash River; Aroostook River; Dead River; East Branch Penobscot River; Fish River; Headwaters Saint John River; Lower Androscoggin River; Lower Kennebec River; Maine Coastal; Mattawamkeag River; Meduxnekeag River; New England Region; Penobscot River; Piscataqua-Salmon Falls; Piscataquis River; Presumpscot; Saint Francis River-Saint John River; St. George-Sheepscot; Upper Androscoggin River; Upper Kennebec River; West Branch Penobscot River
MD187519793Mid Atlantic Region; Middle Potomac-Anacostia-Occoquan; Youghiogheny
MA183320206Ashuelot River-Connecticut River; Charles; Chicopee River; Nashua River; New England Region; Westfield River
MI1906202317Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Boardman-Charlevoix; Cheboygan; Dead-Kelsey; Detroit; Escanaba; Great Lakes Region; Kalamazoo; Lake Erie; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; St. Clair; St. Marys; Upper Wisconsin
MN1945202016Baptism-Brule; Beaver-Lester; Buffalo-Whitewater; Coon-Yellow; Kettle; Lake of the Woods; Lake Superior; Lower St. Croix; Prairie-Willow; Rainy; Rainy Headwaters; Rainy Lake; Snake; St. Croix; St. Louis; Vermilion
MO1978201111Blackwater; Cahokia-Joachim; Independence-Sugar; Lake of the Ozarks; Little Chariton; Lower Mississippi-Memphis; Lower Missouri; Lower Missouri-Crooked; Lower Missouri-Moreau; Tarkio-Wolf; Upper Mississippi-Cape Girardeau
MT197920116Bullwhacker-Dog; Charlie-Little Muddy; Fort Peck Reservoir; Lower Yellowstone; Milk; Prairie Elk-Wolf
NE197520073Big Papillion-Mosquito; Keg-Weeping Water; Lewis and Clark Lake
NH1929199414Ashuelot River-Connecticut River; Black River-Connecticut River; Contoocook River; Headwaters Connecticut River; Merrimack River; Millers River; New England; Pemigewasset River; Piscataqua-Salmon Falls; Saco River; Upper Androscoggin River; Waits River-Connecticut River; West River-Connecticut River; Winnipesaukee River
NY1929201915Black; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Long Island; Middle Delaware-Mongaup-Brodhead; Niagara River; Northern Long Island; Oak Orchard-Twelvemile; Oswegatchie; Raquette; Sacandaga; Seneca; Upper Hudson; Upper Susquehanna; Upper Susquehanna
NC199119911Upper Tennessee
ND197119972Lake Sakakawea; Painted Woods-Square Butte
OH193520172Black-Rocky; Lake Erie
PA186220098Allegheny; Lake Erie; Lower Monongahela; Middle Allegheny-Redbank; Raystown; Schuylkill; Shenango; Upper Susquehanna-Lackawanna
SD197420054Fort Randall Reservoir; Lewis and Clark Lake; Lower Lake Oahe; Rapid
TN195619804Lower Little Tennessee; Lower Mississippi-Memphis; South Fork Holston; Watauga, North Carolina, Tennessee
VT199120203St. Francois River; Waits River-Connecticut River; Winooski River
VA189119943Lower Potomac; Middle Potomac-Anacostia-Occoquan; Potomac
WI1887201723Bad-Montreal; Beartrap-Nemadji; Brule; Coon-Yellow; Door-Kewaunee; Flambeau; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lower Fox; Lower St. Croix; Lower Wisconsin; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Menominee; Milwaukee; Namekagon; Ontonagon; Pike-Root; Red Cedar; St. Louis; Upper Chippewa; Upper St. Croix; Upper Wisconsin; Wolf

Table last updated 5/23/2024

† Populations may not be currently present.

Ecology: Rainbow Smelt can either be anadromous or landlocked in freshwater. They inhabit a large portion of the water column that varies throughout their life. Young of the year Rainbow Smelt typically are found along shorelines in warmer waters 2 to 6 meters deep. Yearlings are found in cooler water within the pelagic zones of lakes (Rooney and Paterson 2009). Adults are reported to undergo diel vertical migration and have been found at depths in Lake Superior and Lake Michigan between 18 and 91 meters depending on the season (Dryer 1966; Wells 1968; Becker 1983). Rainbow Smelt were found in high abundance in river plumes from major tributaries to Lake Michigan. This abundance may be a symptom of the river plumes’ high productivity and the spawning habits of the species (Smith and Simpkins 2018).

Spawning of Rainbow Smelt occurs after ice-out in early spring once water temperatures reach ~4.4°C with a peak at 10°C (Becker, 1983). In the Great Lakes, spawning occurs in tributary streams and occasionally on the shoreline. Eggs of the Rainbow Smelt are adhesive, negatively buoyant, and adhere to substrate until hatching 2 to 3 weeks later (Scott and Crossman 1973; Becker 1983). Age of maturation ranges between 1 to 4 years amongst populations (McKenzie 1958; Murawski and Cole 1978) and life expectancy can reach 8 years (Bailey 1964; Kirn and Labar 1996). They are sexually dimorphic, with females growing larger and living longer than males (McKenzie 1958; Bailey 1964).

Rainbow Smelt can survive in a broad range of environmental conditions. They inhabit temperatures from -1.8°C to around 20°C (Nellbring 1989; Raymond 1995), and can acclimate to extreme cold (< 5°C) by producing an antifreeze protein, glycerol, to facilitate faster-swimming speeds and increased muscle function (Coughlin et al. 2019). A laboratory study that assessed embryonic and larval Rainbow Smelt survival in response to various abiotic factors (dissolved oxygen, pH, salinity, nitrates, and phosphates) found that their survival was only significantly reduced when dissolved oxygen levels were less than 20% and the pH<5 (Fuda et al. 2007). However,a review of data from 8,842 Ontario lakes found that Rainbow Smelt were only caught in lakes with a pH>6 despite adequate opportunity to invade lakes with lower pH values (Evan and Loftus 1987).

Rainbow Smelt are zooplanktivorous at small sizes (<150 mm SL), consuming copepods and cladocerans (e.g., Daphnia and Bosmina); while at larger sizes (>150 mm SL) diet includes benthic crustaceans, and larval and small fishes  (Sheppard et al. 2012). They are an important forage fish for many predators, including Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), Walleye (Sander vitreus), and Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) (Gorman 2019).

Means of Introduction: The earliest known record is from 1912, when eggs were stocked in Crystal Lake, Michigan, which drains into Lake Michigan (Van Oosten 1937). Fish escaped into Lake Michigan and spread quickly throughout the Great Lakes and their tributaries (Creaser 1926; Gerking 1945; Hubbs and Lagler 1947; Nelson and Gerking 1968; Christie 1974; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Smith 1979; Morrow 1980; Phillips et al. 1982; Cooper 1983; Emery 1985). Early records documenting the smelt's range expansion in the Great Lakes include Lake Michigan, 1923 (Christie 1974; Emery 1985), Lake Erie, 1935 (Cooper 1983; Smith 1985), Lake Huron, 1925 (Christie 1974; Eddy and Underhill 1974), Lake Ontario, 1929 (Christie 1974; Smith 1985), and Lake Superior, 1923 (Emery 1985). The Lake Ontario population may be either native to this lake or migrated downstream, possibly through the Welland Canal (Emery 1985; Smith 1985). Another possibility is that the species was introduced from the Finger Lakes via the Seneca-Cayuga, Erie, and Oswego canals (Smith 1985).

Two means have been proposed to explain the introduction of Rainbow Smelt into the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. It may have spread from Lake Michigan via the Chicago sanitary canal to the Illinois River and then to the Mississippi and Missouri rivers (Burr and Mayden 1980). Alternatively, the species may have gained access to these rivers as a result of a stocking at Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota, in 1971 (Bouc 1987; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990). The second explanation seems more plausible because of a lack of records from the Illinois River. Records of first occurrences in other areas include the Mississippi River, Illinois, and Kentucky, 1978; Mississippi River, Louisiana, 1979; Mississippi River, Tennessee, and Arkansas, 1980; Missouri River, Missouri, 1980; Missouri River, Kansas, 1982 (Mayden et al. 1987). Mayden et al (1987) provided a map of the species' distribution, dates of first observation in new areas, and possible introduction pathways. The species was originally introduced into Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota, as forage for Salmonids (Mayden et al. 1987).

Status: Introduced populations of this species have been very successful and the Rainbow Smelt is now established in the Great Lakes and in most rivers and lakes where introduced. This species has done so well in the Great Lakes that a commercial fishery targeting Rainbow Smelt has been operating there for many years (Smith 1985). It is the most abundant fish in some samples taken from the Mississippi River (Pflieger 1997). Nevertheless, no adults of the Rainbow Smelt have been found in either Missouri (Pflieger 1997) or Tennessee (Etnier and Starnes 1993). As such, Pflieger (1997) concluded that populations in Missouri are maintained by the continued escape of fish from upstream reservoirs on the Missouri River. As of 1987, only one specimen had been taken from the Ohio River (Mayden et al. 1987). It is considered extirpated in Georgia; the species has not been observed in that state since its release (Dahlberg and Scott 1971b).

Great Lakes
Widespread invasive with high impact.  Reproducing and overwintering at self-sustaining levels have been recorded in all five Great Lakes.

Impact of Introduction: Dominant prey form for salmonids; contributed to extinction of Blue Pike; affect imperiled species (U.S.EPA 2008; Crossman 1991). In the Great Lakes, Rainbow Smelt compete with Lake Herring Coregonus artedii for food (Becker 1983). Christie (1974) supplied some evidence to support this, correlating lake herring decline with smelt increases in most of the lakes. Todd (1986) also reported that smelt may be partially responsible for the decline of whitefish Coregonus spp. in the Great Lakes. Havey (1973) reported increased growth of landlocked Atlantic Salmon following the introduction of smelt as a forage species in a lake in Maine. Hrabik et al. (1998) found evidence of competition for food between introduced Rainbow Smelt and native Yellow Perch Perca flavescens in Wisconsin lake habitats. Stedman and Argyle (1985) found the diet of O. mordax to include young-of-the-year fish. The species that were consumed by O. mordax depended upon the prey availability (Stedman and Argyle 1985). Stedman and Argyle (1985) discovered that in Lake Michigan in late October of 1982, O. mordax consumed Bloaters (Coregonus hoyi) and Alewives (Alosa pseudoharegus). The authors also noted that although O. mordax does not appear to have had an impact on Bloater populations in the last five years, future impact is possible. A study on nighttime consumption of O. mordax in Lake Ontario revealed their primary food source to be Slimy Sculpin (Cottus cognatus) and opossum shrimp (Mysis relicta) (Brandt and Madon 1986). Juvenile Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) rely heavily on C. cognatus, competing directly with O. mordax, while adult S. namaycush consume O. mordax (Brandt and Madon 1986). The authors point out that S. namaycush may be a keystone predator in the relationship between O. mordax and C. cognatus. Rainbow Smelt contain high levels of thiaminase, which reduces absorption and assimilation of thiamine in predators such as salmonids can cause reduced body condition, swim performance, and other potenial impacts (Houde et al. 2015)

Remarks: This species is eaten by humans and used as bait for Salmonids and Walleye (Pflieger 1997). O'Brien et al. (2014) investigated ecological factors influencing recruitment of Rainbow Smelt in Lake Huron, and suggest that the primary drivers on recruitment were cannibalism by older smelt, availability of spawning habitat due to spring precipitation, and predation on adult smelt by Lake Trout. Feiner et al. (2015) examined recruitment dynamics of Rainbow Smelt in Lake Michigan and found that significant variation in stock productivity over time had a strong influence on recruitment.

References: (click for full references)

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Brandt, S.B., and S.P. Madon. 1986. Rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax) predation on slimy sculpin (Cottus sognatus) in Lake Ontario. Journal of Great Lakes Research 12(4):322-325.

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FishBase Summary

Author: Fuller, P., E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, T.H. Makled, M. Neilson and A. Bartos

Revision Date: 9/25/2020

Peer Review Date: 8/13/2020

Citation Information:
Fuller, P., E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, T.H. Makled, M. Neilson and A. Bartos, 2024, Osmerus mordax (Mitchill, 1814): U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?SpeciesID=796, Revision Date: 9/25/2020, Peer Review Date: 8/13/2020, Access Date: 5/23/2024

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.


The data represented on this site vary in accuracy, scale, completeness, extent of coverage and origin. It is the user's responsibility to use these data consistent with their intended purpose and within stated limitations. We highly recommend reviewing metadata files prior to interpreting these data.

Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2024]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [5/23/2024].

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