Photo credit: Rob Cosgriff, Illinois Natural History Survey, Bugwood.org
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Species at a Glance
The black carp is a member of the Asian carp complex, which includes silver, bighead, and grass carp. This species is a molluscivore and has powerful teeth that allow it to crack open mussels, snails, and other hard-shelled organisms.
The elongate, fusiform, slightly compressed body of the black carp averages 1-1.5 m (3.3-4.9 ft) in length. Color can vary, but is usually dark brown to black on the back and sides with some white on the underside, with dark fins. The mouth is small, terminal, and lacks barbels. Teeth are strong, flat and molar-like, and are arranged in rows of 4-5 on each side. The scales are very large and have black tips, giving its body the appearance of cross-hatching. Fins lack spines. The anal fin is set far back on the body, and the caudal fin is large and forked. Average weight is about 15 kg (33 lbs), but some black carp can reach up to 68 kg (150 lbs).
The best way to distinguish the black carp from the grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) is by looking at the pharyngeal teeth. Black carp teeth appear molar-like, whereas the grass carp’s teeth have deep parallel grooves. The black carp may also resemble the common carp (Cyprinus carpio), which has barbels on either side of the mouth, and species of suckers (Catostomidae), which have thick lips containing small nipple-like bumps.
The black carp is exclusively freshwater and prefers large river systems and embayments in temperate to subtropical climates.
The availability of the black carp in the live fish market may have created a risk for accidental or unlawful release. Additional introduction and spread occurs as fish escape from holding facilities and naturally disperse to new areas.
The black carp is native to eastern Asia from southern Russia to northern China. It was brought to the United States to control snail populations in aquaculture facilities and escaped from holding ponds during flooding in 1994. Individuals have since been found in the lower part of the Mississippi River basin. There are no reports of black carp in the Mid-Atlantic.
Note: Distribution data for this species may have changed since the publication of the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016), the source of information for this description.
The black carp poses a considerable threat to native mussel and snail populations. It can live up to 15 years, consuming several pounds of mollusks each day and competing with native fish, turtles, birds, and some mammals for food. The black carp may also be a vector for parasites and diseases affecting native species.
Information for this species profile comes from the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016).