Osmerus mordax
Osmerus mordax
(Rainbow Smelt)
Native Transplant
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Osmerus mordax (Mitchill, 1814)

Common name: Rainbow Smelt

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: Scott and Crossman (1973); Becker (1983); Smith (1985); Page and Burr (1991).  

Size: 33 cm

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.

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Native range data for this species provided in part by NatureServe NS logo
Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences: Rainbow smelt occur in all five Great Lakes and also have been introduced or dispersed after introduction into several large rivers. Areas with introduced smelt include the Mississippi River, Arkansas (Pennington et al. 1982; Mayden et al. 1987); reservoirs in the South Platte and Arkansas drainages and headwaters of the Colorado basin in Colorado (Woodling 1985; Propst and Carlson 1986; Rasmussen 1998); several lakes in Connecticut (Webster 1942); the Chattahoochee River below Lake Lanier, Georgia (Dahlberg and Scott 1971a, 1971b); lakes in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho (Linder 1963; Simpson and Wallace 1978); Lake Michigan (Emery 1985; Burr 1991), the Mississippi River, the Illinois River (Burr and Mayden 1980; Mayden et al. 1987; Burr 1991, Burr et al. 1996), and Ohio River (Burr 1991) in Illinois (Smith 1979; Burr and Page 1986); Lake Michigan and the Ohio River near Madison and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Indiana (Emery 1985; Mayden et al. 1987; Tilmant 1999); the Missouri River, Iowa (Harlan et al. 1987; Mayden et al. 1987); the Missouri River, Kansas (Mayden et al. 1987); the Mississippi River, Kentucky (Burr and Warren 1986; Mayden et al. 1987); the Mississippi River, Louisiana (Suttkus and Conner 1980; Mayden et al. 1987); Schoodic Lake, Maine (Havey 1973) and inland waters statewide (Halliwell 2003); Maryland (Ferguson 1876; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); nonnative waters of Massachusetts (Smith 1833; Hartel 1992; Hartel et al. 2002) such as Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005); the Great Lakes, Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan (Emery 1985; Tilmant 1999); Lake Superior ,Voyageurs National Park, and Grand Portage National Monument , Minnesota (Emery 1985; Burr and Page 1986; Tilmant 1999); the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, Missouri (Cross et al. 1986; Mayden et al. 1987; Pflieger 1997; Young et al. 1997; Rasmussen 1998); the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, Montana (Gould 1981; Cross et al. 1986; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990); the Missouri River in Nebraska (Cross et al. 1986; Bouc 1987; Mayden et al. 1987) and Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005); several dozen lakes in New Hampshire (Scarola 1973); Lake Erie (Emery 1985), Lake Ontario, the Finger Lakes, the Adirondack lakes, Neversink Reservoir, and Lake Champlain in New York (Werner 1980); Tennessee drainage, North Carolina (Menhinick 1991); Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River, North Dakota (Gould 1981; Bouc 1987; Harlan et al. 1987; Mayden et al. 1987; Holton 1990; Young et al. 1997); Lake Erie, Ohio (Emery 1985); Lake Erie (Emery 1985) and Harvey's Lake (Susquehanna drainage), Pennsylvania (Denoncourt et al. 1975; Hendricks et al. 1979; Cooper 1983; Hocutt et al. 1986); reservoirs on the Missouri River, Chantier Creek South Dakota (Mayden et al. 1987; Young et al. 1997; Hanten, personal communication; Hull 2005); the Mississippi River, Watauga Reservoir, and South Fork Holston River, Tennessee (Mayden et al. 1987; Etnier and Starnes 1993); Lake Champlain, Vermont (Werner 1980); the Potomac River and Occoquan Reservoir, Virginia (Hocutt et al. 1986; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); and Lake Superior, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and several other lakes throughout the state of Wisconsin (Emery 1985; Burr and Page 1986; Tilmant 1999; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 2003).

Established in Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada (Yule, personal communication 2005).

Ecology: Rainbow smelt are zooplanktivorous at small sizes (<150 mm SL), consuming copepods and cladocerans (e.g., Daphnia and Bosmina), and include benthic crustaceans and small fishes into the diet at larger sizes (>150 mm SL; Sheppard et al. 2012).

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 a 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 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 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). 

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 thiamin 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 cannabalism by older smelt, availabilty 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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FishBase Fact Sheet

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

Revision Date: 9/29/2015

Citation Information:
Fuller, P., E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, T.H. Makled, and M. Neilson. 2017. Osmerus mordax. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL.
https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/FactSheet.aspx?speciesID=796 Revision Date: 9/29/2015

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Page Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2017


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. [2017]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [5/1/2017].

Additional information for authors