Drawing of a sheepshead minnow.
Drawing of a sheepshead minnow.
Courtesy: Save The Bay

Sheepshead Minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus)

Alternate common names: Variegated Minnow.
Color: Olive green with a pale yellow white belly. Males turn bright iridescent blue in the spring.
Size: Usually less than 1 1/2 inches long.
Habitat: Shallow waters around inlets, harbors, and salt marshes.
Seasonal appearance: All year.


The sheepshead minnow is a small, thick-bodied fish with a high, arched back and a flat-topped head. These fish are found in shallow, brackish inlets, often in the company of killifish and Atlantic silversides. Sheepshead minnows can be immediately distinguished from mummichogs by their thicker body shape, which is nearly half as tall as it is long, and by their thick, square tails. The body and head are covered with large, rounded scales, and its small mouth holds large, wedge-shaped teeth with tricuspid cutting edges. Male sheepshead minnows, on average, are larger than females. The male has a black bar along the square edge of its thick tail, while the female has an obvious dark spot on the back of the dorsal fin.

Life History and Behavior

During the spawning season, males become iridescent blue with dark orange bellies. Juvenile sheepshead minnows are more slender than adults and have irregular bands on their sides. The sheepshead minnow is omnivorous, feeding on plants, invertebrates, and other fish. They are quite aggressive and can injure and kill fish much larger than themselves by repeatedly slashing out with their sharp teeth. During the winter months, sheepshead minnows burrow in the mud, lying dormant during the cold weather.

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.