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The Three-spined Stickleback or Tiddler and a Roy Harper song

Updated on July 18, 2017

Male Three-spined Stickleback

Head of male three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) by Piet Spaans
Head of male three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) by Piet Spaans | Source

Sticklebacks are a childhood memory

As a boy, the Three-spined Stickleback was the fish I caught the most often in streams, lakes, rivers and ponds. Sometimes they formed shoals in lakes and ponds and would come for food if you threw breadcrumbs in the water. Seeing and catching these little fish is a happy childhood memory.

The males with their bright colours, I thought, were so amazing with the contrast of blue eyes and blue-green on their backs and sides and bright red underneath and on their throats. The male Stickleback could rival any fancy tropical fish for colouration, I thought! Sticklebacks are very much a part of my childhood memories.

I used to marvel at all the different conditions they lived in too, from muddy ponds to fast moving streams, from big lakes to slow-moving rivers and canals. In brackish water by the sea too. You could find Sticklebacks just about anywhere there was water!

Sticklebacks illustration

Gasterosteus aculeatus from British fresh water fishes by Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917)
Gasterosteus aculeatus from British fresh water fishes by Alexander Francis Lydon (1836-1917)

Three-spined Stickleback description

The Three-spined Stickleback is one of many species in the Gasterosteidae family. It is found in the sea as well as in brackish and freshwater, and some populations are anadromous, meaning that they live in the ocean but breed in freshwater. All the ones I have ever seen were either freshwater or brackish water Sticklebacks.

The species is found in the UK, throughout Europe, Asia, North America, Canada and the Northern Hemisphere though its colouration and physical characteristics differ very greatly amongst its very many populations.

Three-spined Sticklebacks grow to about 2 inches usually but sometimes reach double that length. They are general a silvery or olive colour with possible darker brownish mottling and greenish tinges. In the breeding season the males eyes go bluish and the backs and sides can also take on this shade whilst the underside and throat goes red. The female fish become swollen with eggs and never have any red colouration on them or blue.

The male fish court the females with a zigzag dance after building a nest in a small pit in the gravel or mud. They make it out of fragments of water plants and other debris and guard it zealously driving away any males or other fish that come within their territory.

They attempt to coax females to swim through a tunnel in the nest when they lay their eggs. The males follow and fertilise them and then drive the females away. They will, however, mate with more than one female.

The male Three-spined Sticklebacks guard the nests and eggs, fanning them and driving away predators and other Sticklebacks. They will continue to try to guard the baby fry after they hatch too but eventually give up.

Roy Harper - Tom Tiddler's Ground

Why Stickleback?

The Three-spined Stickleback gets its name because it really is armoured with spines. The Stickleback’s dorsal fin has 10-14 rays and in front of this fin are the three spines that give the species its name. The third spine, which is closest to the dorsal fin, is much shorter than the others. The anal fin has 8-11 rays and is also preceded by another small spine. The pelvic fins are made up of a single spine and one ray. These spines make an excellent defence because they lock in position and would hurt any predator that tried to eat these small fish.

Singer-songwriter Roy Harper

The Three-spined Stickleback is also commonly known as the “Tiddler”, and under this name is included in the lyrics of a song by British singer and song-writer Roy Harper in Tom Tiddler’s Ground from his album Flat Baroque and Beserk on the Harvest label: “And there’s a love-nest in Tom Tiddler’s ground, long before Eden was lost and found.”

Three-spined Sticklebacks

Ten-spined Stickleback

The Ten-spined Stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) is also known as the Ninespine Stickleback. It can actually have more or less spines than this, ranging from eight to twelve.

It is found in the UK, many parts of Europe, North America and Canada, the Far East, Turkey and even in Greenland. In Britain this species appears to be far less common than the Three-spined Stickleback, and in fact, I only knew of one location whereas a boy I could guarantee to find these little fish. That was in the weedy reens of an area known as Marshfield on the outskirts of Cardiff.

The Ten-spined Stickleback will tolerate brackish water but wherever it is found it needs to have plenty of aquatic vegetation. Ponds and ditches are where you can expect to find this species and in drainage dykes.

This Stickleback is smaller than the Three-spined and nowhere near as colourful. They are generally a brownish and silvery colour with the males taking on a very dark brown, almost black colouration, in the breeding season.

However, like the Three-spined Stickleback the males of this species build nests and take on parental responsibilities in the breeding season. Unlike the Three-spined they build their nests not on the bottom itself but above it, suspended in some water weeds. The nests are made of fragments of pond-weed and are guarded by the males just like the males of the other Stickleback species do.

The Ten-spined Stickleback does not frequent open or flowing water like the Three-spined and so is far less frequently seen although it may well be present but simply overlooked.

Ten-spined Stickleback

Ten-spined Stickleback (Pungitius pungitius)
Ten-spined Stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) | Source

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