Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council
Skip Navigation LinksHome > Learn > Aquatic Invasive Species > Asian Carp > How to Identify Asian Carp

How to Identify Bighead, Silver, Black, and Grass Carp

Illustration © Joseph R. Tomelleri

BIGHEAD CARP Hypophthalmichthys nobilis

  • Large scaleless head with upturned mouth, no barbels
  • Eyes forward, sit below the mouth and project downward
  • Scaleless keel extends only from anal fin to pelvic fin
  • Very tiny scales (troutlike), 91–120 in lateral line
  • Long and comb-like gill rakers
  • Body is dark gray dorsally to silver white on sides. Many dark irregularly shaped blotches are scattered over body

The bighead carp is a large, narrow fish with eyes that project downward. Coloration of the body is dark gray, fading to white toward the underside, and with dark blotches on the sides. Its head has no scales, a large mouth with no teeth, and a protruding lower jaw. Its eyes are located far forward and low on its head. It is very similar to the silver carp, and can be distinguished by the dark coloration on its sides. The bighead carp can be identified by a smooth keel between the anal and pelvic fins that does not extend anterior of the base of the pelvic fins. Bighead carp can grow to lengths of 5 feet and weigh up to 88 pounds.

Illustration © Joseph R. Tomelleri

SILVER CARP Hypophthalmichthys molitrix

  • Scaleless head with large upturned mouth, no barbels
  • Eyes forward, sit below the mouth, and project downward
  • Scaleless keel extends all the way from anal fin to base of gills
  • Very tiny scales (troutlike), 91–124 in lateral line
  • Gill rakers appear spongy
  • Body is olive green dorsally; silver but sometimes bronze to red sides

The silver carp looks very similar to the bighead carp; however it has a smaller head and an upturned mouth without teeth. Coloration of the body is silver when young, developing into a green color along the spine with age. The silver carp has a moderately large and broad head with a large mouth, toothless, upturned lower jaw, and low-set eyes. The species is known for leaping out of the water when startled (e.g., by noises such as a boat motor). Silver carp grow to about 3.3 feet in length and 60 pounds in weight.
Black Carp

Illustration © Joseph R. Tomelleri

BLACK CARP Mylopharyngodon piceus

  • Broad, blunt head with slight downturned mouth, no barbels
  • No keel
  • Pointed dorsal fin with 7–8 soft rays
  • Dark-edged scales, give a cross-hatched effect, 39-46 in lateral line
  • Blackish-brown to dark olive body; blackish-gray fins; white belly

The black carp has an elongated, narrow body with a blunt head and a slightly down-turned mouth that lacks barbels. The coloration of the black carp is brown to black along the spine, fading to white along its belly with a gold sheen. The body is covered with large, circular scales. The black carp has large throat teeth, resembling human molars, which are adapted to crushing mollusk shells. Black carp adults can exceed 5.9 feet in length and 150 pounds in weight.

Illustration © Joseph R. Tomelleri

GRASS CARP Ctenopharyngodon idella

  • Broad, blunt head with slight downturned mouth, no barbels
  • Eyes sit even with the mouth
  • No keel
  • Pointed dorsal fin with 8–10 soft rays
  • Large scales are silver to gray with a prominent dark edge, giving a crosshatched effect, 34–45 in lateral line
  • Body has dark olive shading with brownish-yellow sides; white belly

Grass carp have a body shape similar to black carp that is large, elongated, and slender, but it lacks both a down-turned mouth, and barbels. Grass carp are silvery to olive in color, lacking the golden hue of common carp. The scales are large, circular in shape, and outlined with a dark pigment, giving a cross-hatched effect, while the head has no scales. The head is slightly flattened with moderately small eyes centered on the side of the head and a toothless mouth. Grass carp have small, comb-like teeth that are best suited for consuming vegetation. Grass carp can grow up to 5.2 feet in length and 80 pounds in weight.

Don't Confuse Young Asian Carp with Common Michigan Species

Diagram provided by Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Click here to download or print the full brochure.

How to Identify Bighead and Silver Carp

Created by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Midwest Region, this video will teach you how to identify bighead and silver carps using grass carp and common carp as points of comparison.  (Published on YouTube July 2, 2012 by USFWS)
Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council • 426 Bay Street, Petoskey, MI 49770
PH: (231) 347-1181 • Fax: (231) 347-5928 • www.watershedcouncil.org
Copyright © 2015 by Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council. All rights reserved. SiteMap
Powered by SiteChalk