What Do Minnows Eat?

By Carolyn Csanyi; Updated April 24, 2017
A small minnow next to a ruler.

Often used to describe any small fish, the term "minnow" specifically refers to freshwater fish of the carp family Cyprinidae, which includes shiners, dace, chubs and fallfish. (see References 1 and 2) Minnows typically don't grow large; adults are often only 3 inches long. A few, such as the fallfish, reach over 17 inches long. (see Reference 2) Younger minnows eat algae and plankton; older minnows eat aquatic insects and other animals. (see References 3 and 4) Minnows are often eaten by larger fish and birds, and sometimes used as bait by fishermen. (see Reference 2)

Young Minnows' Diets

Plankton contains microorganisms; animals so tiny they cannot be identified without a microscope. There are one-celled organisms called protists, which are subdivided into flagellates, ciliates and amoebae. (see Reference 5) The multicellular animals, called zooplankton, include rotifers and two types of crustaceans, cladocerans (or "water fleas") and copepods. All of these are herbivores. (see Reference 6) When they are young, such minnows as lake chub, speckled dace, golden shiner, emerald shiner, and California roach eat plankton. (see References 3 and 4) Other young minnows, such as brassy minnow, hitch, common shiner, and spottail shiner, eat algae. (see Reference 3)

Older Minnows' Diets

Some adult minnows eat animals, such as: snails; worms; aquatic and terrestrial insects; and even other, smaller fish. (see Reference 3) Minnows don't have true teeth in their mouths, but some species crush food against a hard plate in their throat with pharyngeal teeth located along the last gill arch. (see Reference 4, pages 204-205) Other minnows feed on aquatic plants and small clams. (see Reference 4)

About the Author

Carolyn Csanyi began writing in 1973, specializing in topics related to plants, insects and southwestern ecology. Her work has appeared in the "American Midland Naturalist" and Greenwood Press. Csanyi holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.