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Dolly Varden exhibit a typical salmonoid body shape with large eyes below the top of a round, medium-sized head. Juveniles are brown coloured with a whitish belly, with small red spots and rectangular marks on their sides and back. Adults have small, pale pink or red spots, with surrounding bluish halos. Spawning sea-run males are brightly coloured and develop a hook on the lower jaw, while females, non-spawners and freshwater males are more muted in colour.

Length: Anadromous forms, over 35 cm (13.8 in); Freshwater adults 30 cm (11.8 in) or less

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In North America, the Western Arctic Population ranges from Alaska, east along the North Slope of the Yukon Territory, and east to the Mackenzie River.

Range map information

Dolly Varden belong to the same family as trout and salmon. Individuals may be anadromous (use both sea water and freshwater during their life) or live in freshwater only.

Anadromous and freshwater forms of Dolly Varden spawn and overwinter in freshwater springs where sufficient oxygen and suitable temperature levels provide high quality habitat for survival and egg incubation. Gwich’in knowledge indicates that spawning habitat requires relatively warm water, a fast current or high gradient, and plenty of shoreline cover and vegetation with abundant insect larvae available for food.

Anadromous Dolly Varden migrate to the sea to feed for the summer. They return to freshwater in September and October to spawn where they overwinter.

Cross-breeding between forms is not uncommon. Some freshwater males live alongside anadromous fish in the fall and winter and reproduce by “sneaking” into redds (egg laying sites) to spawn with anadromous females.

Population size is largely unknown, but Indigenous knowledge suggests declines in some populations.

Potential threats in the Northwest Territories include drier and warmer conditions due to climate change that could lead to lower water levels, reduced groundwater flows and a reduction in water quality.

Other threats may include over-harvesting, habitat loss and fragmentation, predation, research, tourism and aquatic contaminants.

COSEWIC assessed Dolly Varden (Western Arctic population) as a species of Special Concern in 2010. It was listed as Special Concern under the federal Species at Risk Act in 2017.

Gwich'in Inuvialuit Sahtú