Hypophthalmichthys nobilis
Hypophthalmichthys nobilis
(Bighead Carp)
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Hypophthalmichthys nobilis (Richardson, 1845)

Common name: Bighead Carp

Synonyms and Other Names: Aristichthys nobilis (Richardson, 1845), Leuciscus nobilis Richardson, 1845

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: The bighead carp is a large, narrow fish with eyes that project downward. Coloration of the body is dark gray, fading to white toward the underside, and with dark blotches on the sides. Its head has no scales, a large mouth with no teeth, and a protruding lower jaw. Its eyes are located far forward and low on its head. It is very similar to the silver carp, and can be distinguished by the dark coloration on its sides. The bighead carp can be identified by a smooth keel between the anal and pelvic fins that does not extend anterior of the base of the pelvic fins.

Distinguishing characteristics were given in Berg (1949) and Jennings (1988). Distinguishing characteristics, along with keys that include this species and photographs or illustrations also were included in a few of the more recently published state fish books (e.g., Robison and Buchanan 1988; Etnier and Starnes 1993; Pflieger 1997). A commonly used name is Aristichthys nobilis. Maximum size: 40 kg and 71.6 cm (Jennings 1988).

Size: 40 kg and 1.4 m

Native Range: Southern and central China (Li and Fang 1990; Robins et al. 1991).

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Nonindigenous Occurrences: Bighead carp were first imported into the United States in 1973 by a private fish farmer in Arkansas as a potential biological control agent to improve water quality and increase fish production in culture ponds (Conover et al 2007).

This species has been recorded from the Black Warrior and Tallapoosa river drainages of the Mobile Basin, including Yates Reservoir, Bear Creek on Pickwick Lake, and the central part of the state of Alabama (Mettee et al. 1996; Rasmussen 1998; Hornsby and Pierson, personal communication; Mississippi Museum of Natural Science 2004). This species has been recorded from Arizona in Tucson for the first time in 2007 (L. Riley, pers. comm.). Early records from the 1970s may have been misidentified as bigheads but were most likely bighead x grass carp hybrids (P. Marsh, pers. comm.). In Arkansas, it has been taken from the Arkansas River just upstream of Pine Bluff, the lower Arkansas River between Dam #2 and the Mississippi River (Rasmussen 1998; J. Phillips, personal communication), and stocked in several municipal sewage lagoons in the state (Robison and Buchanan 1988; Courtenay et al. 1991) and is established in White River National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005). In California, 26 specimens were taken from one of three ponds in a small drainage adjacent to Brannin Creek, Tehama County, in the Sacramento River basin, in 1992 (Dill and Cordone 1997). It also has been stocked in water treatment ponds in Larimer County, Colorado (Horak, personal communication; P. Walker, personal communication), and two individuals were caught from Cherry Creek Reservoir in Denver in 2004 an stocked in Birdland Reservoir in Metro Denver by the Bureau of Reclamation (P. Walker, personal communication). This species has been recorded from Florida (Shafland 1996) including Lake Okeechobee (D. Fox, personal communication). A single specimen was taken in August 1994 from St. Andrews Bay at the Deer Point Lake spillway, Bay County, Florida (Middlemas 1994; UF 98162). Another was taken from a lake on the southeast side of Lake Okeechobee, Florida (FMNH).  Collected from several water bodies in, or bordering, Illinois, including the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and several of their tributaries, the Cache, Big Muddy, and Kaskaskia river drainages, and Horseshoe Lake in Madison County (Burr 1991; Burr et al. 1996; Tucker et al. 1996; Ross 2001; Rasmussen 1998), the Illinois River (K. Cummings, personal communication; USFWS 2005), and Chain Lake, Schuyler County, Illinois (Jennings 1988); collected in Bryant Creek, Oxendine Bayou, Vigo County, Indiana (Illinois Natural History Survey 2004), the Ohio River at mile marker 919 on the Indiana-Kentucky border (Freeze and Henderson 1982; D. Jennings 1988); the Chariton River below Rathbun Lake, Desoto National Wildlife Refuge (Located along the Missouri River, 25 miles north of Omaha), and the Des Moines River, in Iowa (J. Bruce, personal communication; USFWS 2005); the Kansas, Delaware, Neosho, Arkansas, Missouri, and Wakarusa rivers in Kansas (Cross and Collins 1995; Halker 1998; Rasmussen 1998); several waterbodies in Kentucky (Freeze and Henderson 1982; Jennings 1988; Southern Illinois University; Thomas, pers. comm; Henley, pers. comm.); several water bodies in Louisiana, including the Atchafalaya River, Red River drainage, and Turkey Creek (Carp Task Force 1989; Rasmussen 1998) and the Red-Ouachita River (Douglas et al. 1996); from Lake Pepin (Mississippi River) in Minnesota waters in October 2003 (S. DeLain, personal communication); from several water bodies in, or bordering, Missouri, including the Mississippi River mainstem, the Missouri, Chariton, Osage, and Salt rivers, among others (Bennett 1988; Robinson 1995; Tucker et al. 1996; Pflieger 1997; Rasmussen 1998; Southern Illinois University; Chapman, pers. comm.; Etnier, pers. comm.) collected in Brick House Slough [vicinity of Alton, IL] (Illinois Natural History Survey 2004); various water bodies in Mississippi, including the Yazoo and Pacagoula river drainages (Douglas et al. 1996; Ross 2001; Mississippi Museum of Natural Science 2004) and along the main channel of the Mississippi River of the state below a wing dike (L. Nico, personal communication); the Missouri River area and Platte River of Nebraska (Howells 1990; Rasmussen 1998; Nebraska Game and Parks 2000) estblisehd in Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS 2005); Lake Erie, Ohio, off Cedar Point (T. Cavender, personal communication); several sites in the Grand River drainage of Oklahoma, including the Neosho River in Ottawa County, Grand River in Mayes County, upper Grand Lake, and Lake Hudson (Pigg et al. 1993, 1997; Rasmussen 1998);  the Missouri River up to Gavins Point Dam in South Dakota (Rasmussen 1998; W. Stancill, personal communication); the Mississippi River mainstem, the Hatchie River, Guntersville Lake, and the Tennessee River near Lake Barkley, Tennessee (Etnier and Starnes 1993; Anonymous 1995; Simms 2005); Victor Braunig, Kirby, and Fort Phantom Hill Reservoirs and Red River below Lake Texoma in Texas (Howells 1992; Rasmussen 1998; Texas Parks and Wildlife 1999; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 2001); collected near I-81 in Washington County, Virginia (W. Kittrell, personal communication); and the Ohio River at Moundsville, West Virginia (M. Hoeft, personal communication).

Ecology: Bighead carp is a powerful filter-feeder with a wide food spectrum that grows fast and reproduces quickly (Xie and Chen 2001), which makes this species a strong competitor. The diet of this species overlaps with that of planktivorous species (fish and invertebrates) and to some extent with that of the young of virtually all native fishes. Bighead carp  are thought to deplete plankton stocks for native larval fishes and mussels (Laird and Page 1996). Bighead carp lack a true stomach which requires them to feed almost continuously (Henderson 1976).

Female bighead carp reach sexual maturity at three years of age, while males can reach sexual maturity in two years; however, this varies significantly with changing environmental conditions (Huet 1970; Kolar et al. 2007).  Bigheaded carps are only known to spawn in large, turbulent rivers and it is believed that a rising hydrograph (flood event) is a primary spawning cue (Kolar et al. 2007). Fecundity increases with age and body weight and is directly related to growth rate (Verigin et al. 1990). In its native range, Bighead Carp has a fecundity ranging from 280,000-1.1 million eggs. In North America, fecundity ranged from 4,792-1.6 million eggs (Kipp et al. 2011).  Bighead carp produce eggs that are semi-buoyant and require current to keep them from sinking to the bottom (Soin and Sukhanova 1972; Pflieger 1997).  The eggs float for 40-60 hours before hatching.

Means of Introduction: Bighead carp were first imported into the United States in 1973 by a private fish farmer in Arkansas who wanted to use them in combination with other phytophagous fishes to improve water quality and increase fish production in culture ponds. In 1974 the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Auburn University, Alabama, obtained stock to assess their potential benefits and impacts (Jennings 1988). The species first began to appear in open waters, the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, in the early 1980s, likely as a result of escapes from aquaculture facilities (Jennings 1988). In April 1994, several thousand bighead carp, along with a few black carp Mylopharyngodon piceus, escaped into the Osage River, Missouri, when high water flooded hatchery ponds at an aquaculture facility near Lake of the Ozarks (Anonymous 1994). Fish that escaped into the Missouri River have increased and spread, since 1990, into the lower Kansas River of Kansas, and elsewhere (Cross and Collins 1995). The species may have dispersed into Oklahoma waters from fish illegally brought into southeast Kansas by a commercial fish farmer in 1988 (Pigg et al. 1993). According to Pigg et al. (1997), collections in the Grand River of Oklahoma since 1991 indicate a gradual downstream dispersal. The species was illegally stocked along with grass carp in one or a few ponds in California; these were brought into the state by a commercial aquaculturist. The live fish were reportedly transported in a concealed compartment under a load of black bass in the fall of 1989 from a fish grower in Oklahoma or Arkansas (Dill and Cordone 1997).  The species was illegally stocked in Cherry Creek Reservoir, Colorado (P. Walker, personal communication).

Hypophthalmichthys nobilis has a moderate probability of introduction to the Great Lakes (Confidence level: High).
Potential pathway(s) of introduction: Dispersal, unauthorized release, and escape from commercial culture

Established nonindigenous populations of bighead carp are found in close proximity to the Great Lakes in locations which do not preclude dispersal and which would provide an easy source population for unauthorized release.  Large populations of bighead carp are established in the middle and lower segments of the Illinois River, the upper Illinois River (Waterway), and the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) (Baerwaldt et al. 2013).  Three bighead carp adults were collected in Lake Erie between 1995 and 2000, but they are not thought to represent an established population (Cudmore et al. 2012). “The body condition of these individuals was healthy, but for those individuals dissected, their reproductive organs were not viable (B. Cudmore, Fisheries and Oceans, pers. comm.).” Bighead carp individuals have also been collected in isolated Chicago lagoons (e.g., Schiller Park Pond, Columbus Park Lagoon, Garfield Park Lagoon, McKinley Park Lake, Flatfoot Lake) closer to Lake Michigan. In 2008, a bighead carp was found in Lincoln Park South Lagoon, which connects to Lake Michigan via a screened overflow drain; this pond was poisoned and drained in late 2008 (Willink 2010). 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  constructed a set of three electrical barriers, the first of which opened in 2002, on the Chicago Sanitary and Shipping Canal to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins; only one live bighead carp has been found  (Lake Calumet in 2010) in the waterway above the barrier and a dead individual was found on the shore of Lake George, Indiana (Baerwaldt et al. 2013).

While not indicative of live fish, environmental DNA (eDNA) of bighead carp was been found in water samples collected above the electric barriers (i.e., closer to Lake Michigan) in 2012 from Lake Calumet (USACE 2012).  Additional eDNA of silver carp has been found in Sandusky Bay, Lake Erie (OH) (MI DNR 2012).

As of 2012, there were no bigheaded carps in or near the St. Lawrence River and opportunities for the introduction of bigheaded carps to the St. Lawrence River are not well understood.  However, should they gain access to the St. Lawrence River, laker ballast water or natural dispersal would provide a direct route to Lake Ontario  (Cudmore et al. 2012).

The potential for purposeful, human-mediated releases of bigheaded carps into the Great Lakes basin does exist. Humans have illegally released freshwater fishes for sport opportunities (Crossman and Cudmore 1999a, Bradford et al. 2008) or spiritual/ethical reasons (Crossman and Cudmore 1999b, Severinghaus and Chi 1999, Shiu and Stokes 2008). This human behavior of illegally releasing nonnative fishes into the aquatic environment is difficult to characterize and quantify (Bradford et al. 2008).

Most states prohibit the use of carp as baitfish, however juvenile carp may be present as a contaminant in baitfish. Feeder fishes—typically Goldfish (Carassius auratus) or “rosy reds”, a color variant of Fathead Minnow (Pimephales promelas)—shipped into the Great Lakes basin could be contaminated with bigheaded carps if they originated from fish farms in the Mississippi River basin. Fathead Minnows found in the bait industry in Michigan are known to originate from culture in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota (G Whelan, Michigan DNR, pers. comm.). However, the volume of such movement and the extent of contamination, if any, is unknown. Based on a subsample of live fish import records for 2006-2007, fathead Minnows (likely rosy reds) imported for the aquarium trade originated primarily from Missouri and secondarily from North Carolina (Cudmore et al. 2012). 

It is currently illegal to possess or sell live Asian carps in Ontario; however, despite this legislation, bighead carp and grass carp were documented in shipments for import into Ontario. Eight entry records were recorded from January 2010 to August 2011 that listed grass (9.8 mt) and bighead (16.8 mt) carps as species descriptions. All of the shipments originated in Arkansas.” (Cudmore et al. 2012)

There are many ponds and artificial lakes in the Chicago metropolitan area which are commonly stocked for fishing with Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus). Channel catfish are often purchased from southern fish farmers, where it is possible for the stock to be contaminated with juvenile bighead carp. For instance, in September 2011, 17 large bighead carp were collected from Flatfoot Lake in the Beaubien Forest Preserve (K. Irons, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, pers. comm.). Three bighead carp were also found from Schiller Pond.  Escapes of another Asian carp, grass carp, have occurred in similar circumstances.


Status: This species has been recorded from within, or along the borders of, at least 18 states. There is evidence of reproducing populations in the middle and lower Mississippi and Missouri rivers and the species is apparently firmly established in the states of Illinois and Missouri (Burr et al. 1996; Pflieger 1997). Pflieger (1997) received first evidence of natural reproduction, capture of young bighead carp, in Missouri in 1989. Burr and Warren (1993) reported on the taking of a postlarval fish in southern Illinois in 1992. Subsequently, Burr et al. (1996) noted that bighead carp appeared to be using the lower reaches of the Big Muddy, Cache, and Kaskaskia rivers in Illinois as spawning areas. Tucker et al. (1996) also found young-of-the-year in their 1992 and 1994 collections in the Mississippi River of Illinois and Missouri. Douglas et al. (1996) collected more than 1600 larvae of this genus from a backwater outlet of the Black River in Louisiana in 1994. The first open water record of this species in Arkansas is based on two specimens taken from the Arkansas River in 1986; however, as of the late 1980s there has been no evidence of natural reproduction in that state (Robison and Buchanan 1988). According to Dill and Cordone (1997), there is evidence that the California ponds containing Chinese carp have spilled since 1989, opening the door for bighead carp and grass carp to gain access to the Sacramento River. The West Virginia record involved a single fish taken in 1997 (Hoeft, personal communication). Harvest of bighead carp by commercial fishermen in Missouri has been somewhat erratic. In 1993, the species accounted for 0.6 percent (3,348 pounds) of the reported commercial fish harvest, a decline from the previous year (Robinson 1995).

Hypopthalmichthys nobilis has a moderate probability of establishment if introduced to the Great Lakes (Confidence level: High).

Bighead carp have been able to establish themselves in a wide range of environments with a wide range of temperatures and lower salinity levels. They are moderately dietary generalists feeding on a variety of zooplankton and algae (Gollasch et al 2008).  Bighead carp have been demonstrated to outcompete both native larval fishes and mussels (Laird and Page 1996).  It would be highly likely for the bighead carp to find an appropriate food source but the amount they eat might not be sufficiently found in the Great Lakes.

Their locations in Asia suggest their ability to withstand the Great Lakes waters during the winter period.  Winter mortality is not known to be an issue for bigheaded carps in the Mississippi River basin; bigheaded carp fingerlings are collected from floodplain wetlands in the spring in years when those wetlands were not connected to the river (D. Chapman, USGS, pers. obs.). Overwinter mortality may influence the northern limits of the native range of bigheaded carps, but has not been modelled specifically for these species in North America.   Ecological niche modeling predicting the potential North American distribution of bigheaded carps indicated that they could survive well north of the Great Lakes basin (Herborg et al. 2007); therefore, overwinter mortality will likely not be a limiting factor in most years (Cudmore et al. 2012

Bighead carp need large, turbulent rivers and higher temperatures to spawn. The eggs float for 40-60 hours before hatching. Only some rivers emptying into the Great Lakes are sufficient of this characteristic and at only parts of the year. Two studies have examined the suitability of Great Lakes tributaries for bigheaded carp spawning based on more detailed considerations of reproductive biology. Kocovsky et al. (2012) examined eight American tributaries in the central and western basins of Lake Erie. They considered: the thermal conditions of the tributaries and Lake Erie, the minimum total degree-days required for maturation, onset of spawning and mass spawning, timing of flood events as triggers for spawning, and length of stream required for egg hatching based on stream velocity and estimated incubation time. They concluded that the three larger tributaries were thermally and hydrologically suitable to support spawning of bigheaded carps, four tributaries were less suited, and that one was ill suited. Mandrak et al. (2011) conducted a similar analysis for the 25 Canadian tributaries of the Great Lakes. They concluded suitable spawning conditions were present in nine of 14 tributaries to Lake Superior with sufficient data; however, only one of the nine tributaries had a mean annual total degree-days exceeding 2,685. Therefore, bigheaded carps are unlikely to mature within Lake Superior tributaries, but may encounter sufficient growing degree-days to mature in some parts of Lake Superior such as near shore and bays. Further analysis is required to identify such areas. Mandrak et al. concluded suitable spawning conditions, including growing degree-days required for maturation, were present in 23 of 27 tributaries to Lake Huron, nine of 10 tributaries to Lake Erie, and 16 of 28 tributaries to Lake Ontario.  These analyses suggest that access to tributaries with suitable thermal and hydrologic regimes in the Great Lakes should not limit spawning by bigheaded carps. (Cudmore et al. 2012)


Impact of Introduction: The impact of this species in the United States is not adequately known. Because bighead carp are planktivorous and attain a large size, Laird and Page (1996) suggested these carp have the potential to deplete zooplankton populations. As Laird and Page pointed out, a decline in the availability of plankton can lead to reductions in populations of native species that rely on plankton for food, including all larval fishes, some adult fishes, and native mussels. Adult fishes most at risk from such competition in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are paddlefish Polyodon spathula, bigmouth buffalo Ictiobus cyprinellus, and gizzard shad Dorosoma petenense (Burr et al. 1996; Pflieger 1997; Whitmore 1997; Tucker et al. 1998; Schrank et al. 2003). A study by Sampson et al. (2009) found that Asian carp (silver and bighead carps) had dietary overlap with gizzard shad and bigmouth buffalo, but not much of one with paddlefish.

Asian carps have been shown to affect zooplankton communities (Burke et al. 1986, Lu et al. 2002, Cooke et al 2009; Calkins et al. 2012; Freedman et al. 2012; Sass et al. 2014).

Freedman et al. (2012) showed that resource use and trophic levels of the fish community change when Asian carps are present. They also demonstrated an impact on Bigmouth Buffalo and found isotopic values similar to Bluegill, Gizzard Shad, and Emerald Shiner.

Irons et al. (2007) showed significant declines in body condition of Gizzard Shad and Bigmouth Buffalo following invasion by Silver and Bighead carps.  They state that ultimately, declines in body condition may decrease fecundity.

Remarks: Similar to the closely-related silver carp Hypophthalmichthys molitrix, the bighead carp is a filter feeder that prefers large river habitats. One of the so-called Chinese carps, it has been used in many parts of the world as a food fish and sometimes introduced in combination with silver carp into sewage lagoons and aquaculture ponds (Jennings 1988). In the United States bighead carp are frequently stocked into catfish culture ponds. According to Stickney (1996), studies have not confirmed that bighead carp actually do improve water quality in culture ponds.

Voucher specimens: Florida (UF 98162).

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FishBase Fact Sheet

Author: Nico, L., P. Fuller and J. Li

Revision Date: 1/22/2015

Citation Information:
Nico, L., P. Fuller and J. Li. 2016. Hypophthalmichthys nobilis. USGS Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL.
https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=551 Revision Date: 1/22/2015

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.

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Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2016]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [10/24/2016].

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