Fish of Lake Eyre and its tributaries

Pellicans on Lake Eyre

The infrequent flooding of Lake Eyre (Kati Thanda) by major episodic rain events in western NSW and Queensland often results in the partial filling of Lake Eyre. The massive increase in wetland and marine birds breeding on the periphery of the lake and on the many small islands and the rivers to the north has been well documented (Kingsford and Porter 1994) and the subject of numerous TV documentaries.

No rivers or creeks in central Australia flow permanently, although there are a number of artesian springs (e.g. Ebgbaston Springs, Elizabeth Springs) that bring water to the surface forming permanent waterholes or small lakes. Many of the rivers have deep water holes that never or seldom dry out, and these provide the source populations for the fish that rapidly increase and expand their geographic distributions when rain comes and the rivers flow.

When in flood, rivers such as Cooper Creek may spread as wide as 50km or more in parts, owing mainly to the flatness of the landscape, which causes the river to spread out into many channels (Wager and Unmack 2000). When in flood, these rivers capture a diverse range of terrestrial invertebrates that become an important food source of breeding fish. Salt lakes also are the source of a large biomass of invertebrate eggs that lay dormant until the lakes fill, when they hatch, often in such large numbers they can provide a pink tinge to the lake. It is these waterholes and deep pools that are ecologically important, and because of their size they are often easily contaminated by unthinking people and stock. Much less is known of the massive increase in the fish population that occurs with this flooding (Kerezsy 2011) than we do about the wetland birds. The vast majority of these fish die as the rivers and lake dry up (Ruello 1976, Kerezsy 2011), but while they last, these fish and the abundance of invertebrates are a food source that supports the thousands of wetland and marine birds that breed in the vicinity of Lake Eyre when it contains water.

Wager and Unmack (2000) provided the following list of fish that can be found in the Lake Eyre catchment:

  • Bony Bream (Nematalosa erebi)
  • Australian Smelt (Retropinna semoni)
  • Hyrtl’s catfish (Neosilurus hyrtlii)
  • Dalhousie catfish (Neosilurus gloveri)
  • Bulloo false-spined catfish (Neosilurus sp.)
  • Cooper Creek Catfish (Neosilurides cooperensis)
  • Silver tandan (Porochilus argenteus)
  • Finke hardyhead (Craterocephalus centralis)
  • Dalhousie hardyhead (Craterocephalus dalhousiensis)
  • Lake Eyre hardyhead (Craterocephalus eyresii)
  • Glover’s hardyhead (Craterocephalus gloveri)
  • Aramac Spring hardyhead (Craterocephalus sp.)
  • Desert rainbowfish (Melanotaenia splendida tatei)
  • Red-finned blue-eye (Scaturiginichthys vermeilipinnis)
  • Western chanda perch (Ambassis mulleri)
  • Lake Eyre golden perch, yellowbelly or callop (Macquaria sp.)
  • Bulloo golden perch or yellowbelly (Macquaria sp.)
  • Murray-Darling golden perch, yellowbelly or callop (Macquaria ambigua ambigua)
  • Murray cod (Maccullochella peelii peelii)
  • Banded grunter (Amniataba percoides)
  • Silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus)
  • Welch’s grunter (Bidyanus welchi)
  • Spangled perch (Leiopotherapon unicolour)
  • Barcoo grunter (Scortum barcoo)
  • Western Carp gudgeon (Hypseleotris klunzingeri)
  • Midgley’s carp gudgeon (Hypseleotris sp.)
  • Lake’s carp gudgeon (Hypseleotris sp.)
  • Frew mogurnda (Mogurnda sp.)
  • Dalhousie mogurnda (Mogurnda thermophila)
  • Flinders Ranges, Barcoo, or Bulloo mogurnda (Mogurnda clivicola)
  • Finke mogurnda (Mogurnda larapintae)
  • Desert goby (Chlamydogobius eremius)
  • Elizabeth Springs goby (Chlamydogobius micropterus)
  • Dalhousie goby (Chlamydogobius gloveri)
  • Edgbaston goby (Chlamydogobius squamigenus)
  • Finke goby (Chlamydogobius japalpa)
  • Golden goby (Glossogobius aureus)
  • Gambusia (Gambusia holbrooki)
  • One-spot livebearer (Phalloceros caudimaculatus)
  • Swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri)
  • Goldfish (Carassius auratus)
  • Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

A couple of these species have been translocated (e.g. Murray cod) and others have been released aquarium fish (e.g. swordtails, goldfish, carp, one-spot livebearer). But who said fish are not abundant in arid Australia? You just need to be in the right place at the right time.

Graham was recently fortunate enough to fly over Lake Eyre when it was partially full and then along the Warburton Creek, over the Goyder Lagoon on the Diamantina River floodplain, the Simpson Desert and then over a series of creeks that empty into the western edge of Lake Eyre.

The most striking features to me were the vastness of Lake Eyre when it was partially full of water, the variety of fauna habitats along the Warburton Creek, Goyder Lagoon and the Diamantina River for birds, fish and mammals. Unlike sections of the Great Victoria Desert, in which I have spent some time, the Simpson Desert appears to have quite distinct fauna habitats that are associated with dunes, swales, salt lakes and clay pans. Below are a few of the images to illustrate these features.

Australian Desert Fish

If you are interested, Dr Peter Unmack’s webpage on desert fish provides a lot of useful information about the fish and their environment.

Lake Eyre Lake Eyre on the ground
 Lake Eyre from the sky  Lake Eyre on the ground
Goyder Lagoon Diamantina R
Goyder Lagoon  Diamantina River
Warburton Creek Simpson Desert
Warburton Creek Simpson Desert
Simpson Desert 1 Neales R that flows into the western side of Lake Eyre
Simpson Desert Neales River that flows into the western side of Lake Eyre


Kerezsy, A. 2011. Desert Fishing Lessons Adventures in Australia’s rivers. UWA Publishing, Perth.

Kingsford, R. T., and J. L. Porter. 1994. Waterbirds on an adjacent freshwater lake and salt lake in arid Australia. Biological Conservation 69:219-228.

Ruello, N. V. 1976. Observations on some massive fish kills in Lake Eyre. Australian Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 27:667-672.

Wager, R., and P. Unmack. 2000. Fish of the lake eyre catchment of central australia. Brisbane.

Photo credit: Top – Flock of Pelicans at Lake Eyre

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One Response to “Fish of Lake Eyre and its tributaries”

  1. Cool on September 17th, 2020 1:01 pm

    Cool site
    I will come to diddle the pelican

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