Flying Fish (How they Developed this Ability & Species)

Types of flying fish

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Planet Earth is full of all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures, and while we usually think of birds to be flying animals, there are actually several types of flying fish!

This adaptation is indeed unique, but it’s seen in fish in almost every ocean, although tropical waters have a greater abundance of these species.

To look at them, you’ll see that they really do have wings, even if these are technically enlarged pectoral fins. In any case, they’re fascinating animals and I’d love to share more about them with you.

What is a Flying Fish?

What is a flying fish?

Flying fish are a species that belongs to the Exocoetidae family in the order of Beloniformes class Actinopterygii. There are more than 60 species of flying fish across 7 genera, and they’re generally divided into two categories: those with two wings and those with four.

Two-winged flying fish include the genus fodiator, exocoetus, and parexocoetus. It’s thought that these were the first species to exist and that four-winged flying fish, such as the cypselurus and hirundichthys evolved from these. 

Unlike birds, flying fish don’t actually fly, but rather glide as they come out of the water. They’re able to do this thanks to their unique physical features. For example, their pectoral fins are not only enlarged, but sit higher on the body than other types of fish. They also have bigger pelvic fins in order to gain better stability when in the air.

In the water, these fish benefit from a long, narrow body that makes them much speedier than many other species. Usually flying fish are around 12 inches (30 cm) in length, although they can get up to 18 inches (45 cm) in some cases.

They’re found in all of the worlds’ oceans, including temperature waters, but are more frequently found in warmer, tropical regions. They tend to live in the epipelagic zone at depths of around 200 meters where there is great species diversity. But of course, they can often be seen soaring above the surface.

Flying fish mainly eat a diet of plankton but are also known for feeding on small fish and crustaceans. They’re not fussy eaters but are also prey for a variety of predators including tuna and swordfish as well as humans since these fish are considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.

Why Did Flying Fish Develop the Ability to Fly?

Why did flying fish develop the ability to fly?

It is believed that flying fish evolved their ability of flight in order to evade predators. While this seems to be effective against foes under the water, these fish do put themselves at risk of becoming a bird’s next meal when they’re gliding through the air.

Research has shown that flying fish have been around for as long as 200 million years, and there’s evidence in the form of fossils to show how they’ve evolved. These fossils are thought to be up to 242 million years old and show an ancient relative of the modern flying fish. However, owing to a heavier tail fin, scientists believe that this species hadn’t yet developed the ability to properly glide like the flying fish we see today.

However, over those many millions of years, flying fish have become much more aerodynamic, with long, cylindrical bodies with a flat portion on the underside as well as specially adapted fins.

Do Flying Fish Actually Fly?

Do flying fish actually fly?

If you’re lucky enough to observe a flying fish, what you’re seeing is not flight in the true sense of the word. Instead, these fish leave the water and glide over impressive distances. Before they even take flight, these fish can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour (56 kph) in the water which allows them to propel themselves clear of the surface.

They do this by contorting their bodies into a C shape which lifts them out of the water. At this point, the fish will use its specially shaped tail which it flicks through the top of the water, helping it to properly break the surface. 

Once clear of the surface, this tail-flicking action can send the fish flying up to speeds of 40 miles per hour (65 kph) and more than 20 feet (6 meters) into the air. Some of the longest flying fish flights can go on for more than 600 feet (180 meters), although, in most cases, they’ll only remain airborne for around 50 feet (15 meters).

That said, Japanese journalists were lucky enough to have recorded some amazing flights, with the longest ever recorded at 45 seconds. Moreover, when flying fish use leading waves to propel them, it is possible that they can more than double their average distance, flying for more than 1300 feet (396 meters)!

But flying fish, coming in a range of sizes, don’t actually exhibit flight activity until they reach at least 2 inches (5 cm) in length. 

Flying Fish Reproduction

Flying fish reproduction

When it comes to mating, flying fish prefer to do this in open waters where there are no strong currents. However, while this may be an area of relative safety, the sheer number of flying fish eggs that are laid can be problematic.

You see, female flying fish will lay their eggs on nearby debris, which is usually some type of seaweed such as sargassum. The eggs have small filaments that allow them to attach to the seaweed, and the males will release their sperm nearby to fertilize them. But when several females lay eggs in the same place, this can weigh the seaweed down and cause the whole structure to sink

The mating rituals of the flying fish are pretty impressive with the males showing off their fins which they’re able to change to a pinkish color before fluttering it in a hopeful display.

Two-Winged Flying Fish

Two-winged flying fish are less advanced, only being able to fly in a straight line and typically over shorter distances. It’s thought that these fish were the first to evolve this defense behavior.

1. Tropical Two-Wing Flyingfish (Exocoetus Volitans)

Gervais et Boulart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The tropical two-wing flying fish, as its name suggests, lives in tropical and subtropical waters, where it will hunt for small crustaceans, plankton, and other small invertebrates. Its main predators are things like tuna, dolphins, and swordfish.

These fish are normally found living in open water but can sometimes be found closer to the coast. When breeding, they do not attach their eggs like other species of flying fish, and females can lay up to 400 at a time.

The tropical two-winged flying fish is one of the larger species and can get up to 12 inches (30 cm) in length and is typically iridescent blue in color with a silver underbelly. Its large pectoral fins allow it to glide over long distances out of the water.

2. Oceanic Two-Wing Flyingfish (Exocoetus obtusirostris)

Carl Nielsen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

There are many similarities between the tropical and oceanic two-wing flying fish, but a clear difference is the length of the nose which is why this species is often referred to as the blunt-snouted flying fish.

What’s more, they’re typically a little smaller than the tropical two-wing flying fish, growing up to around 10 inches (25 cm). The coloration, however, is pretty much the same.

Oceanic two-wing flying fish are often found in coastal waters and were first discovered in 1866. They frequent eastern Atlantic waters as well as many parts of the South Pacific.

3. Sailfin Flyingfish (Parexocoetus brachypterus)

David Starr Jordan and Barton Warren Evermann / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Sailfin flying fish can grow up to 8 inches (20 cm) in length and are often a lot stockier than other species of flying fish. Their pectoral fins, while enlarged, don’t tend to be as long as other flying fish.

These fish are found in both the Western Atlantic along the coasts of Florida down to Brazil and are pretty abundant in the Caribbean Sea.

They mainly eat plankton and are prey food for animals like seabirds, large fish, and even squid. When breeding, they’ll gather in large numbers, and one male may mate with up to three females.

4. Short-winged Flyingfish (Parexocoetus mento)

Francis Day and R. Mintern / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The short-winged flying fish goes by many different names, including the African sailfin, Cuvier’s flying fish, and the yellow belly flying fish. They’re found in the Indo-Pacific regions, but since around 1935, they’ve colonized the Mediterranean Sea, where they are thought to have gained access via the Suez Canal.

Short-winged flying fish were discovered in 1847 and are largely found in coastal waters near the surface. It is incredibly rare to find them in the open ocean, and they’re much smaller than other flying fish species, typically growing to no more than 4 inches (10 cm).

These fish have a protruding upper jaw and are iridescent blueish-green in color. A fascinating fact about the short-winged flying fish is that it usually dies after spawning.

5. Sharpchin Flyingfish (Fodiator acutus)

David Starr Jordan / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The sharpchin flying fish is native to tropical waters and can mostly be found in the eastern parts of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the North East Pacific Ocean. Generally speaking, these fish prefer to live closer to the surface, where they can often be seen gliding long distances through the air.

These are among some of the larger species of two-winged flying fish and can grow up to 10 inches (25 cm) in length. They’re a feature of commercial fisheries, but in the wild can be found swimming up to depths of around 100 feet (30 meters).

Four-Winged Flying Fish

Four-winged flying fish evolved from their two-winged counterparts. Rather than just large pectoral fins, these species also have enlarged pelvic fins.

1. Atlantic Flyingfish (Cheilopogon melanurus)

Gary Leavens / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

As you can probably guess from its name, the Atlantic flying fish is found across the Atlantic Ocean. It inhabits both coastal and open waters, and the juveniles can often be found swimming in harbors. They’re common along the coasts of Brazil all the way up to western Canada.

These fish will come together to breed in very large numbers, with their main breeding season happening between June and July.

The Atlantic flying fish can grow up to 12.5 inches (32 cm), but the average size is around 10 inches (25 cm). Much like other species, they have an iridescent blue hue and are lighter on the underside. With 6 inches (15 cm) pectoral fins and 1.5 inches (4 cm) pelvic fins, they’re able to glide up to 40 feet (12 meters) in a single flight.

2. Narrowhead Flyingfish (Cypselurus angusticeps)

Narrowhead flying fish live in the pelagic region and go down to depths of around 65 feet (20 meters). They’re about average size for flying fish, with most adults getting no bigger than around 10 inches (25 cm). They are blueish green in color and have a silver underbelly which is common of many flying fish species.

The narrowhead flying fish is mainly found in Indo-Pacific regions as well as in some central parts of the Pacific. They’re common along the eastern coast of Canada all the way down to Mexico and are also found in East African waters and Hawaii, so are very widespread.

These fish have a similar diet to other flying fish species that consists mainly of plankton. But they do fall prey to a lot of predators, including dolphins, dorado, and a variety of seabirds.

3. California Flyingfish (Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus)

California flying fish can, unsurprisingly, be found in waters off the Californian coast. However, they’re common in other tropical Pacific waters and sub-tropical regions of the Eastern part of this ocean.

These fish are the largest species of flying fish on this list and the biggest can get up to 15 inches (38 cm) in length. They have a blunt snout and are blue in color.

The California flying fish feeds on fish eggs, larvae and plankton, and while it prefers the open ocean, it will venture nearer the coast at night when it’s hunting.

4. Black Wing Flyingfish (Hirundichthys rondeletii)

NOAA Photo Library / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The black wing flying fish is mainly found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans where it seeks out tropical waters. However, there have been some reports of this species being seen in Spanish coastal waters and as far north as the English Channel.

First discovered in 1847, the black wing flying fish is one of the largest species and can get as big as 12 inches (30 cm) in length. It feeds on a variety of plankton as well as fish larvae and eggs. Normally, it prefers open waters but can be seen in coastal regions and doesn’t tend to go any deeper than 65 feet (20 meters).

These fish are a deep iridescent blue with dark black wings, which is where they get their name.

5. Backspot Flyingfish (Cheilopogon dorsomacula)

The blackspot flying fish is widespread across the Pacific Ocean as far as South America. However, it is never found in the Southeast Asian inland seas. Moreover, this species never frequents the open ocean and prefers the safety of coastal waters.

These fish are around average in terms of flying fish size, typically growing up to 9 inches (23 cm). They feed on a diet that is very similar to other flying fish species, which includes fish eggs and plankton.

Are Flying Fish a Protected Species?

Are flying fish a protected species?

There aren’t any species of flying fish that are endangered therefore they are not a protected species. In fact, on the IUCN Red List, these are a species marked as being of least concern. That may come as a surprise considering that flying fish are often fished by humans for food.

In places like Barbados, India, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China, there are huge commercial fisheries specifically targeting flying fish as they’re considered a delicacy in many parts of the world. In Japan, chefs will dry out the fish and use them to make a type of stock called ago dashi.

Normally, fishing takes place when the fish are out of the water and they’re caught in nets. Flying fish are attracted to light, so fishermen will wait until there is no moon and head out to see with torches to lure the fish out of the water.

So, while commercial fisheries do take significant numbers from the ocean, this doesn’t affect the population which remains incredibly stable.

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