Roaches of California: Hidden Biodiversity in a Native Minnow

by Peter B. Moyle



If you inspect small streams in northern California, including those that seem too small or warm for any fish, you will often see minnows swimming in the clear water. Chances are you are seeing a very distinctive native Californian, usually called California roach.  This fish is a complex of species that occurs as far north as Oregon tributaries to Goose Lake and is widespread in tributaries to the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, as well as in rivers along the coast from the Eel River to Monterey.

“California Roach” is the name originally given to some minnows collected in 1854 from the San Joaquin River.  When the great Stanford ichthyologists David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann put these fish into their grand monograph Fishes of North and Middle America, they decided it looked like the roach (Rutilus rutilus), a common minnow in England and Europe.  They then gave it the scientific name Rutilus symmetricus.  While the relationship to European roach was dismissed by John O. Snyder in 1913, the unfortunate common name of “roach” stuck.  Snyder placed California Roach in its own genus, Hesperoleucus, and divided it into six species, based on body shape and counts of fin rays and scales (see Table).  His species were also based on the isolation of their home waters from other watersheds, which would prevent interbreeding.

Because roaches are small inconspicuous fishes, little formal attention was paid to their taxonomy (or status).  By the 1950s, there seemed to be a general consensus that Snyder’s species were at best subspecies and the California roach was back to one species.  This was reflected in the classification presented in my 2002 book, Inland Fishes of California, although the species was divided into eight subspecies.   Then, Andres Aquilar and Joe Jones (2009) looked at populations that were part of this ‘species complex’ using mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Their analysis indicated that two of Snyder’s species, northern roach and Gualala roach, were strongly supported as ‘good’ species.  The other six subspecies I listed in 2002 were at least supported as distinct genetic units by their analysis.

To clarify the relationships among the species more firmly, new techniques in genomics were brought to play.  This effort was led by Jason Baumsteiger, a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Watershed Sciences and in the genomics laboratory of Mike Miller.  He performed restriction-site associated DNA (RAD) sequencing on roach samples collected throughout California to discover and genotype thousands of single nucleotide polymorphism (SNPs) (see Baumsteiger et al.  2017). This detailed examination of the genomes of roaches from throughout their range allowed determination of how much each population had diverged from other populations.  Among other things, it allowed for ‘rules’ to determine which populations were species, subspecies, or distinct population segments.

Distinct population segment (DPS) designations are based on the use of DPS designations under the national Endangered Species Act; they are isolated populations that are distinctive, but not quite different enough so to be called species or subspecies. DPS designations are widely used for determining whether or not salmon and steelhead populations are eligible for protection under the ESA.

The application of genomics to the taxonomic relationships of roach populations (Baumsteiger and Moyle 2019) resulted in our recognition of five species, four subspecies, and 5 distinct population segments (Table 1). The five species each have distinctive, interesting features.

The California roach is the most widespread species, historically found in streams throughout the Central Valley, with many opportunities for adaptation to local conditions, such as those found in the Kaweah River (hence the Kaweah roach DPS). It appears to be losing these locally-adapted populations rapidly, however, as they become increasingly isolated by dams and damage to streams, and by invasions of their small stream refuges by green sunfish and other non-native predators.

The Clear Lake roach is a bit of mystery because it a perfect hybrid between coastal roach and California roach.  This fits the geologic history of the region, which has been alternately connected to the Russian River and to the Sacramento River. Presumably representatives from both watersheds made it into the Clear Lake basin at times and hybridized.  The hybrid was apparently superior to either parent species in its ability to persist in streams tributary to Clear Lake.  Today, the Clear Lake roach is more isolated than ever, because the lake is full of non-native predatory fishes.

Hybridization also has led to the development of new species in the northern roach.  This roach inhabits small streams and springs of the upper Pit River basin and looks like other roach species.  So we were surprised when the genomics study showed that about 80% of the genome was like that of the hitch, a related species in a different genus (Lavinia exilicauda).  This seems to have been from an ancient hybridization, perhaps when Sacramento Valley fishes invaded the Pit River region thousands of years ago. Curiously, we also found that the roach-like fish abundant in Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir, on the upper Tuolumne River, also are hitch-roach hybrids even though they were introduced into the reservoir by persons unknown.

The southern coastal roach is also known to hybridize with hitch, where the two species occur together naturally, but these hybrids seem unimportant to the populations of both species. The presence of subspecies and DPSs in the coastal roach distribution reflects the isolation of coastal watersheds from one another with enough connections in the past to keep populations from differentiating enough to be labeled species.  This also makes the Gualala roach a bit of an anomaly, given that watersheds on both sides of the Gualala River contain coastal roach.   The northern coastal roach also shows how rapidly a species can spread when introduced into new watershed, in this case the Eel River. These roach, probably introduced in the 1960s, now occupy most of the accessible habitat in the Eel, one of California’s largest watersheds; the genomic study indicates that they came from fish in the Russian River roach DPS, just to the south, so were pre-adapted for conditions in the Eel River.

This study of small fishes demonstrates again the high endemism in fishes that are adapted to the special, often harsh, conditions in California streams.  This surprising diversity is another example of what makes California special and needing of a well-supported, state-wide conservation strategy. The roach species complex is also good example of hidden biodiversity revealed by new genetic techniques.  Modern genomics can support conventional taxonomic methods to designate species, subspecies, and DPSs and should improve our ability to conserve California’s richness of fishes.


Northern roach. Photo by Stewart Reid


Common name Scientific name Snyder 1913 Moyle 2002 Notes
California Roach H. symmetricus H. symmetricus H. symmetricus Name applied to all roach by Moyle 2002 and others
Red Hills Roach H. s. serpentinus H. s. subsp. Serpentine endemic; Tuolumne County
Central California Roach H. s. symmetricus H. symmetricus H. s. symmetricus Tributaries to Central Valley
Kaweah  Roach H. s. symmetricus H. s. symmetricus DPS, Kaweah River
Clear Lake Roach H. symmetricus x venustus H. s. subsp. Hybrid that behaves like a full species; tribs. to Clear Lake
Coastal Roach H. venustus Originally multiple species/subspecies
Northern Coastal  Roach H. venustus navarroensis Introduced into Eel River.
Russian River Roach H. venustus navarroensis Lumped with Clear Lake Roach DPS, introduced into Eel River
Navarro Roach H. venustus navarroensis H. navarroensis H. s. navarroensis DPS, Navarro R.
Southern Coastal Roach H. venustus subditus
Tomales Roach H. venustus subditus H. s. subsp. DPS, Tomales Bay streams
Monterey Roach H. venustus subditus H. subditus H. s. subditus DPS, Salinas-Pajaro watersheds
Northern Roach H. mitrulus H. mitrulus H. s. mitrulus Pit River; originated as hybrid with Hitch.
Gualala Roach H. parvipinnis H. parvipinnis H. s.  parvipinnis Gualala River

Further readings

Baumsteiger, J. and P. B. Moyle. 2019. A reappraisal of the California Roach/Hitch (Cypriniformes, Cyprinidae, Hesperoleucus/Lavinia) species complex. Zootaxa 4543 (2): 2221-240.  (available as open-access download)

Baumsteiger, J., P. B. Moyle, A. Aguilar, S. M. O’Rourke, and M. R. Miller. 2017. Genomics clarifies taxonomic boundaries in a difficult species complex. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0189417. (available as open access download)

Moyle, P.B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California.  University of California Press, Berkeley.

Peter B. Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.


Classic California roach habitat.  Dye Creek, Tehama County, July 2014

About jaylund

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Director, Center for Watershed Sciences University of California - Davis
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6 Responses to Roaches of California: Hidden Biodiversity in a Native Minnow

  1. The advances in genetic analysis in the last 40 years have been stunning, and are making the old morphological species descriptions fairly inadequate. I was using protein and enzyme analysis to distinguish populations in 1972, and find the new technology wonderfully more effective.

  2. Pingback: Tough Fish in a Harsh Place: Red Hills Roach | California WaterBlog

  3. Pingback: Roach Riddles: Hidden Diversity of a California Minnow - FISHBIO Fisheries Research, Monitoring, and Conservation

  4. Roger Raiche says:

    Hi Peter Moyle,
    I was looking up the scientific name for CA roach and came across your article. I have property and also manage access for BLM at The Cedars in Sonoma Co, which is the headwaters of both branches (East and Big ((or West)) Austin Creek. It is about 6,000 acres of contiguous serpentine (ultramafic) rock. The North side of The Cedars also includes 5 headwater creeks that feed into the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River. My property and access is the Big or West Austin Creek part. Back about 20 years ago a friend, Kara Nelson, took a specimen to someone at UC Davis (she can’t recall) and we got the ID at that time of CA roach. But seeing your article here, makes me realize a couple of things; one being is that it is probably now the Russian River Roach (H. venustus navarroensis. But because The Cedars is the extreme headwaters of the Austin (and other) watersheds, and in the summer is broken up into numerous isolated pool, some being laden with calcium carbonate from the serpentinization process, I was wondering if it might even be a distinct race? The Cedars has 7 endemic plant species, so the area is rich in endemism, and that might be reflected in fish as well.
    Basically was wondering if any from The Cedars were sampled in your study, or if you had any interest in visiting the site before the rains, or if you care to have a sample sent to you? It is essentially the only fish common in the lower serpentine canyons, though we did sight a sculpin and 2 steelhead trout over the last 20 years. Thanks for your time.

    • Peter Moyle says:

      Roger- Thanks for the comment. I have not sampled roach from upper Austin Creek but it sounds like an interesting population. The fish in the lower creek are definitely coastal roach and it is certainly possible that the headwater population is distinct. The Red Hills roach was recognized because it looked different from other roach and morphological and genomic studies bore that observation out. Basically it has a more flattened body shape than other roach. If you have some photos that show body shape and fins well, I could make a guess about distinctiveness. Given the expense and time it takes for a further genomic study, that is unlikely to happen. But treating the headwater populations as special (i.e. as a distinct population segment) is certainly merited, given how tough it must be to survive in that environment.


      • Roger Raiche says:

        Hi Peter Moyle,
        I have a few images, though possibly not good enough for any resolution. Is there an email I can send them to? It’s a beautiful canyon system if you ever want to see it, though access is slightly challenging, but not that bad (i.e., not a paved road and there are 7 creek crossings, which most of the year are not problematic). Anyway, mostly curious about the issue, and I realize additional genomics would be a financial issue as well as someone wanting to do it. Though it is possible that BLM might be interested, but their budgeting is pretty restrictive.

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