The Tennessee River is one of the most aquatically biodiverse river systems in North America. It is also habitat for the largest nesting population of bald eagles in the United States. In fact, Ijams Nature Center is fortunate to see bald eagles frequently, soaring over the river in search of their favorite food- fish. The Tennessee River Basin as a whole is home to so many species of wildlife that the Nature Conservancy considers it to be the single most biologically diverse river system for aquatic organisms in the United States!

So while the TenneSwim team makes it’s way down the river, here’s a brief look at the natural history of some of the river residents they may encounter!


Image result for rainbow darter tn aquarium

Male rainbow darters exhibit much more color and pattern than the females. (Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Aquarium)

When speaking of swimming in the Tennessee River, it seems the most obvious place to start a wildlife tour would be with the fish. Dr. Fath is potentially being accompanied by approximately 230 fish species- from the tiniest darters to the shark-like sturgeon. Recreationally important species such as largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, and black crappie dodge the lures of eager anglers. Smaller, colorful fish like the redline darter and rainbow darter dash in and out of rocks in search of food. And the prehistoric-looking lake sturgeon glide through the waters the same way their ancestors did in the age of the dinosaurs.

Lake Sturgeon disappeared from the Tennessee River 50 years ago due to overfishing and poor water quality. With help of a restocking program operated by the Tennessee Aquarium, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and TVA, they are coming back.


Moving from the finned to the feathered, birds are another common sight along the Tennessee River. From powerful birds of prey like bald eagles and osprey to the small acrobatic fliers like cliff swallows, the Tennessee River system is home to hundreds of bird species.

Prothonotary warblers are cavity nesting birds that breed along rivers and streams.

Ijams Nature Center is particularly recognized for its connection to the graceful great blue heron, which is featured on the logo. The largest of the wading birds, these herons are often seen gliding effortlessly over the surface of the water. The river is also critical habitat for a variety of ducks, shorebirds, and songbirds.

The largest of the wading birds, the great blue heron is a year-round resident in Tennessee.


It only seems right to end with the fuzziest of animal groups- the mammals. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there is a certain elegance to the alliterative rhythm of using the words fins, feathers, and fur! Literary technique aside, the mammals are some of the more popular, yet elusive, residents of the Tennessee River, the most common of which are the muskrat, otter, and beaver.

During breeding season, river otters are often spotted in family groups with parents and up to 6 pups.

Not uncommon, but rarely spotted are the river otters. In fact, in the middle of the Tennessee River, just across from the river overlook at Ijams, lies a small triangular island called Otter Island. Although no documentation for the origin of the name can be found, one must imagine that it has been the sight of many otter sightings! Otters were even spotted in the water the morning that Dr. Fath first dove into the Tennessee River, so that must be a good sign.

The landscapes along the Tennessee River weave themselves into a colorful tapestry of cliffs, forests, meadows, and shoals and as a result the wildlife viewing offers almost endless opportunities for discovery. So be sure to check out these terrific resources to learn more about the state’s wild neighbors:

Other wildlife in the Tennessee River include reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, and mollusks.

The balance of nature within this ecosystem can be alarmingly fragile, yet somehow also unexpectedly resilient. And biologists and researchers across the region continue the valuable work of helping residents and visitors to better understand the populations of aquatic species and our impact on their survival. So as Dr. Fath continues his trek down the Tennessee, one can only hope he is greeted warmly by some of the species that will benefit from his endeavor!