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Stout bodied with a terete body form. Three characters set them apart from the creek chub. A barbel is present at the posterior end of the mandible. The scales are large, with 38 to 48 in the complete lateral line. The anal fin has 7 rays. Body color is coppery on the back and upper sides, shading to silvery on the sides, and whitish-yellow on the belly. Breeding males have a distinctive carmine-colored patch behind each eye, orange-colored dorsal and anal fins, and the head has a pinkish-bluish wash with prominent white tubercles. Young fish have reddish-colored caudal fins, a distinct lateral band, and a caudal fin spot. These characteristics fade in adulthood. Scales along the back and upper sides may look cross hatched. Hornyhead Chubs have a large, slightly oblique, and terminal mouth. Hooked pharyngeal teeth on broad arches are arranged in a 1, 4-4, 1 formula. The dorsal fin, inserted slightly behind the pelvic fin, has 8 rays, while pectoral fins have 14 to 16, and pelvic fins have 8 rays.
Creeks and small to medium-sized rivers in the Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar, Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa, Turkey, and Upper Iowa river drainages, where they are rare to occasional in collections. A few collections have been made in the Big and Little Sioux river drainages and in the natural lakes.
The young initially eat zooplankton, then change to fish, crayfish, aquatic insects, algae, and plants as adults.
Hornyhead chubs live in clear, small to medium-sized streams with sand and gravel bottoms. They are found near riffle areas, but away from the current. Their preferred habitat has aquatic vegetation.
Spawning takes place during April and May, as males build nests by moving gravel with their mouths and build a mound as they sweep a concave nest. Breeding occurs at the same time the nest is built, so several hundred eggs will be placed throughout the nest, and the eggs are protected from predation by the surrounding gravel. This species reaches up to 10-inches long.
Until recently, the Hornyhead Chub was listed under the genus Hybopsis. The sub-genus Nocomis was then raised to genus status and is now considered more closely related to Semotilus than to Hybopsis.