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Do Flying Fish Really Fly?

Flying fish are known for their explosive power. Learn about the astonishing adaptations behind their intricate movements.

By Matt Hrodey
May 29, 2023 1:00 PM
Flying fish
A flying fish glides through the air. (Credit: Daniel Huebner/Shutterstock)


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Flying fish belong to the family Exocoetidae, which means in Latin, “fish that sleeps on the shore.” The family contains about 60 flying fish species that live about 5 years and use special ray-shaped fins underwater. They eat a humble diet of plankton and other small crustaceans.

You can see this species in pop culture: In the seventh level of the original Super Mario Bros., Mario must run through a gauntlet of little red flying pufferfish called Cheep Cheeps. But in reality, they soar through the ocean waters.

Can Fish Fly?

(Credit: Shutterstock/Shane WP Wongperk)

Since flying fish don’t beat their fins like wings, they lack the propulsion required to fly in a conventional sense. You can find flying fish in warm waters, in tropical and subtropical climates, where they are fished as a food source.

One method of fishing involves motoring out into the ocean with a bright light, which attracts the fish. Many fish are drawn to light with the promise of plankton, and spring right from the water to land in the boat.

How Do Flying Fish Fly?

The process of springing out of the water actually begins underwater. The fish swims rapidly toward the surface and reaches some 40 miles per hour. As it bursts through the surface, it does so at a specific angle meant to maximize lift with its fins, which act as wings.

They fly primarily to escape predators such as mackerel, marlin, swordfish and tuna. As the flying fish dodge predatory fish below and hungry waterfowl above, high-speed chases can happen often.

Read More: Meet the Mudskipper: The Fish That Walks on Land

How Far Can Flying Fish Fly?

Flying fish can launch themselves six feet in the air at a speed of about 35 miles per hour. From there, they can glide up to 650 feet over the water while dragging their rigid bodies, which act like airplane fuselages. To extend the flight, the fish may retract its fins, dive back down into the water and repeat the process.

For a 2010 study, researchers caught flying fish, gutted them and filled them with foam, all before sticking them in a wind tunnel. The result? The fish exhibited excellent aerodynamics, on par with or better than those of hawks, wood ducks and insects. The study also found that the angle the fish burst through the water (in the wild) was the same that maximized lift in the lab.

How Did Flying Fish Evolve?

A combination of genetic mutations and natural selection led to the flying fish’s torpedo-like body and ray-shaped fins, although such a combination may have involved a simple mechanism, according to a 2022 study. It identified two genes that, in combination, seemed to trigger the development of long, flying fins.

In isolation, each seemed to produce a “clumsy fish,” according to Quanta Magazine.

Led by Matthew Harris, an associate professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the team studied the genomes of 35 flying fish species, looking for areas that had changed quickly under evolutionary pressure. Then they tested out the effects of the genes on small zebra fish.

Read More: Fish Can Count, Along with Other Animals

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