All About Flying Fish: The Gliding Cod

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 11th November 2023

NameFlying fishDietOmnivorous
Scientific nameExocoetidaeWeight50-100 grams (1.7 to 3.5 ounces)
Pronunciationflai-uhng fishLength17-45 centimeters (7 to 8 inches)
ClassificationActinopterygii, Beloniformes, ExocoetoideiLocationWorldwide

The Flying Fish

Gage Beasley's Flying Fish Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Flying Fish Plush Toy

From lizards that can walk on water to squirrels that can glide from tree to tree, nature has many bizarre characters.

The flying fish is one of such strange entities. 

The name refers to a group of ray-finned fish renowned for their ability to launch themselves out of the water and glide in the air for several seconds. 

Although they cannot “fly” in the literal sense, they can glide in the air for up to 45 seconds, holding their wing-like pectoral fins to the side in a way that makes it look like they’re really flying. 

The self-propelled leap of this fish is an adaptation for escaping from underwater predators. 

They are found in warm waters worldwide and are renowned for their impressive speed and agility in and out of the water. 

In this article, we’ll explore the world of this bizarre fish and explain some of its most fascinating attributes. 

Taxonomy and Classification

2D illustration of a flying fish
2D illustration of a flying fish / Pearson Scott Foresman via Wikipedia Public Domain

Fish in the family Exocoetidae are collectively referred to as flying fish. 

This family of marine, ray-finned fish belongs to the order Beloniformes, which means they’re distantly related to ricefish, halfbeaks, and sauries. 

This marine species is also called flying cod, even though it is not directly related to the actual cod fish. 

The family name, Exocoetidae, is from the Latin words “ex,” which means “out of,” and “koitos,” which means bed. 

This fish family was named by Mediterranean sailors who believed they returned to the shore every night to sleep. 

There are about 64 species of flying fish grouped into seven genera. 

Close-up of a flying fish
Close-up of a flying fish / swedishmonica via iStock

The genera within this large family of fish include: 

  • Exocoetus 
  • Fodiator 
  • Parexocoetus 
  • Cheilopogon
  • Cypselurus 
  • Hirundichthys 
  • Prognichthys 

Fish species with the unique ability to glide out of the water evolved several million years ago. 

The oldest fossil dates back to the Middle Triassic Period, about 242 to 235 million years ago, and it belongs to a member of the extinct Thoracopteridae family. 

This fossil fish is not directly related to the living species of flying fish, and their wing-like pectoral fins are an adaptation that evolved convergently in both lineages despite being unrelated. 

They are believed to have evolved from marine fish species that lived close to the water’s surface. 

Over millions of years, selective pressures allowed individuals to develop specialized adaptations for escaping predators and finding food.

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Physical Characteristics

Flying fish are small cigar-shaped fish with a slightly compressed profile.

The most prominent feature of this fish is the pectoral fins on either side of their bodies. 

A common atlantic flying fish
A common Atlantic flying fish / Gervais et Boulart via Wikimedia Commons Public domain

The fins are elongated (often longer than the fish’s body itself) and have a wing-like shape. 

These specialized fins act as wings when the fish leaps out of the water, allowing it to glide above the surface.

Flying fish can be categorized as either two-wingers or four-wingers based on the number of fins they have.

Two-wingers only have two large pectoral fins, while four-wingers (species in the Cypselurus genus) have two additional pelvic wings, helping to maximize their time in the air. 

The tail fins of flying fish are vertically forked, with a longer bottom lobe than the top lobe.

This tail’s rudder-like (hypocercal) shape contributes to the fish’s streamlined body and propulsion in the water.

Flying fish come in various sizes, with the average length ranging from seven to 12 inches (18 to 30 centimeters). 

A flying fish isolated on white background
A flying fish isolated on white background / Valerii Evlakhov via iStock

However, a few species can grow larger than average, with the largest specimens reaching up to 18 inches (45 centimeters). 

Their weight varies as well. 

On average, they can weigh between 50 and 100 grams, but larger species can weigh more.

Flying fish exhibit a variety of coloration patterns depending on their species. 

Common colors include silver, blue, and green shades on the upper body. 

This coloration helps them blend in with the ocean’s surface when viewed from below. 

Their undersides are usually silvery or white.

Habitat and Distribution


Flying fish live in tropical and temperate waters all over the world. 

They are often associated with the warm waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. 

Some species of flying fish are also found in the Mediterranean Sea.

Flying fish have a wide distribution range, which cuts across various continents and countries within the Earth’s tropical and subtropical regions. 

In the Atlantic Ocean, this fish’s range extends from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to the eastern Atlantic off the coast of Africa. 

It can be found off the coast of Barbados, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and Senegal.

In the Indian Ocean, flying fish are found in the waters around countries like the Maldives, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and on the eastern coast of Africa.

The island geography of the Pacific Ocean Basin
The island geography of the Pacific Ocean Basin / MTBlack via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The Pacific Ocean is one of the main habitats of this family of fish. 

Species in the Exocoetus genus are particularly abundant in the waters around Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, and the Hawaiian Islands.

In places where this group of fish is found, they mostly live in the open ocean. 

However, a few species can be found near coral reefs. 

In the epipelagic zone, you’ll most commonly find flying fish.

This is the upper layer of the open ocean, with a depth range that extends from the surface to a few hundred meters — about 200 meters (656 feet).

Behavior and Social Structure

A flying fish taking off
A flying fish taking off / image via Wikipedia Public Domain

Flying fish are famous for their ability to leap out of the water and glide just above the ocean’s surface. 

This behavior allows them to access plankton and other organisms that congregate near the surface, but it is primarily an adaptation for escaping predators.

Flying fish swim and soar at very high speed. 

In fact, these fish are so fast that it was difficult for biologists to determine if they flapped their pectoral fins in flight like a bird or just glided in the air. 

It took the invention of high-speed photography in the latter half of the 20th century to determine how this executed their gliding flight. 

To leap out of the water, the flying fish swims at speeds up to one meter (three feet) per second.

They beat their tail furiously and hold their pectoral fins tightly against their body before erupting from the water. 

A Flying Fish takes flight over the waves of the North Atlantic
A Flying Fish takes flight over the waves of the North Atlantic / Dr John A Horsfall via iStock

Once out of the water, the fish spreads its enlarged fins and uses it to glide for several seconds. 

Based on available records, the longest time a flying fish has spent in the air is about 45 seconds, and they can reach a top speed of up to 30 kilometers per hour (19 miles per hour) when in the air. 

The farthest distance covered by a flying fish in flight is about 400 meters (1,312 feet), and they can leap to heights of up to 8 meters (26 feet) above the water surface. 

They can also perform up to 12 consecutive glides. 

Flying fish are not highly social animals. 

They form loose schools or aggregations, especially when feeding near the water’s surface.

These schools tend to vary in size and composition, but individuals schooling together do not interact significantly with each other. 

Illustration of a subspecies of flying fish called short-wing flying fish
Illustration of a subspecies of flying fish called short-wing flying fish / Jordan et.al.,2006 via Wikipedia Public Domain

Flying fish also migrate together in large groups like this. 

They move to different areas of the ocean within their range based on changes in ocean conditions and temperature. 

These migrations can be influenced by factors such as water temperature, food availability, and reproductive patterns.

Flying fish are diurnal, meaning they’re more active during daylight hours. 

They spend their days near the ocean’s surface, gliding and foraging for food. 

At night, they may descend to deeper waters to avoid potential predators but can be attracted to the surface by light. 

Diet and Feeding

Flying Fish feeding on krill at night
Flying Fish feeding on krill at night / Kevin Schafer via Getty Images

The flying fish is an omnivore. 

The typical diet of this fish includes microscopic plants known as phytoplankton and tiny marine animals known as zooplankton, such as copepods. 

They also prey on small crustaceans like shrimp and krill when they encounter them near the surface.

They live close to the ocean surface, where they can easily access these tiny organisms. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

They are oviparous, meaning they lay eggs. 

Spawning typically occurs near the water’s surface, where males and females release their gametes (sperm and eggs) into the open ocean.

The female deposits her eggs in the water, and they get attached to seaweed and other floating debris in the water by a sticky filament. 

Salmon and sturgeon roe bear resemblance to Tobiko
Salmon and sturgeon roe bear resemblance to Tobiko / THOR via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

The number of eggs produced can vary depending on the species and individual, but it can be substantial. 

Some females release hundreds or even thousands of eggs in a single spawning event. 

By releasing several eggs in this manner, the female increases the chances of the sperm from the male fertilizing an egg in the water.

They do not provide parental care to their eggs and hatchlings.

Once fertilized, the eggs develop in the open ocean.

The eggs are small and buoyant, floating near the surface, exposed to the elements and potential predators.

Newly hatched flying fish look slightly different from adults. 

The Australasian flying fish
The Australasian flying fish / Gerald Corsi via iStock

They have whiskers around their mouths, which helps to disguise them as plants. 

This protects them from potential predators. 

Juvenile flying fish can “fly” when they reach lengths of about five centimeters (two inches). 

The average lifespan of fish in this family is about five years.

Ecological Role and Interactions

Flying fish play a crucial ecological role within the pelagic ecosystem where they live. 

Not only are they integral as prey species to bigger fish, but the flying fish also contribute to nutrient cycling and the overall balance of their ecosystem.

Flying fish are omnivorous, with a diet consisting predominantly of phytoplankton and zooplankton. 

A fisherman caught a flying fish
A fisherman caught a flying fish / Tony Arruza via Getty Images

These are the primary producers in the aquatic ecosystem as they’re capable of assimilating nutrients from the surrounding waters. 

The feeding activities of this species take nutrients from this low trophic level and make them available to bigger fish and other aquatic predators at higher trophic levels. 

Some of the typical predators of this species include swordfish, tuna, mackerel, and marlin. 

These predators can’t see through the mirror-like water surface, so leaping out of the water helps the flying fish escape from them. 

Most species of flying fish can also change direction while in the air. 

This allows them to land in the water in spots where the predators won’t be expecting them. 

Although gliding through the air is effective for evading aquatic predators, the short periods spent in the air often expose this marine creature to attacks from avian predators like the frigate birds.

Conservation Status and Threats

Dried flying fish for sale in Tokyo
Dried flying fish for sale in Tokyo / Nesnad via Wikipedia CC BY 4.0

The different flying fish species have a relatively stable population.

The few species listed on the IUCN red list are classified as “least concern,” which means their population is currently not under threat or at risk of extinction. 

Various threats and challenges still endanger this species, even if they aren’t directly at risk, potentially impacting their population.

This species faces climate change as one of its major threats.

Changes in ocean temperatures and currents can affect the distribution and abundance of plankton, which is the primary food source of flying fish.

Changes in the oceanic conditions can also affect their breeding and migration patterns. 

Marine pollution and the degradation of the typical habitats of these fish by human activities is another significant threat they face. 

Flying fish for sale in local fish market of Saint Martin's Island, Bangladesh
Flying fish for sale in local fish market of Saint Martin’s Island, Bangladesh / image via Wikimedia Commons CC A-SA 4.0

Flying fish live close to the surface, which means human activities such as coastal development, shipping, and pollution tend to affect them directly. 

One clear example that demonstrates this was in Barbados. 

The Island country, often called “the land of the flying fish,” boasts an abundant population of these fish.

However, the construction of a deep-water harbor in Bridgetown, Barbados, led to increased shipping activities in the water around the Island. 

This diminished the health of the coral reefs and led to significant pollution. 

Their population stopped returning to Barbados in large numbers, migrating as far north as Tobago, several miles southwest of Barbados. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

The flying fish shows off its fins that look like wings, highlighting how nature combines sea and air features
The flying fish shows off its fins that look like wings, highlighting how nature combines sea and air features / image via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Flying fish have several remarkable adaptations that aid their survival in their pelagic habitat. 

Their most notable adaptation is their wing-like pectoral fins, modified for gliding. 

When threatened by underwater predators, this species can leap out of the water and spread their pectoral fins to increase time spent in the air. 

In addition to their large fins, this marine species has a body built for the complex maneuvers they use to lift themselves out of the water.

For instance, this fish has broad neural arches, which provide a sturdy connection site for ligaments and connective tissues that link the fish’s vertebral column to their cranium. 

This gives the fish a rigid body that gives them an aerodynamic advantage while in flight and also provides the strength needed to generate lift. 

A rigid body reduces a fish’s flexibility, allowing it to leap and glide over remarkable distances without weakening.

Artistic depiction of a flying fish in the ocean
Artistic depiction of a flying fish in the ocean / DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY via Getty Images

This fish’s well-developed vertebral columns and ossified tail also make it easier to change directions while in the air. 

The flying fish’s coloration adapts well for camouflage.

Shades of silver, blue, and green often tint their upper bodies, allowing them to blend with the ocean’s surface when seen from below.

This camouflage makes them less visible to both underwater and aerial predators.

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

The flying fish is a fascinating fish species.

With their impressive gliding abilities, these creatures stand out as remarkable. Folklore, art, and indigenous traditions frequently reference them, especially in areas where they thrive.

For instance, the flying fish is the national fish of Barbados and holds a special place in Bajan culture. 

Illustration of a flying fish painted in watercolor
Illustration of a flying fish painted in watercolor / yoko obata via iStock

The island symbolizes its identity and celebrates it in various ways, including featuring it on the Barbadian dollar coins.

The “flying fish and cou-cou” is also the national dish of Barbados.

Traditional Japanese art, folklore, and poetry often depict flying fish.

The changing seasons associate with them, and people sometimes use their presence or absence to mark the transition between seasons.

Some Polynesian cultures used flying fish as an indicator when navigating the seas. 

When flying fish land on canoes or boats, it indicated land was nearby. 

Fishermen actively fish for this marine species across various locations worldwide, especially in Japan, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, and India.

Paint engraving of this marine species
Paint engraving of this marine species / THEPALMER via iStock

In fact, commercial fishing of this marine species is one of the major causes of conflicts between Barbados vs. Trinidad and Tobago. 

The fish is commercially valuable in both countries. 

However, changes in seasonal migratory patterns have led to dwindling populations in Barbados. 

Commercial fishers in Barbados often end up following the fish into Tobagonian territories. 

Countries have implemented efforts to delineate their maritime boundaries, yet conflicts persist.

The French Exocet missile is named after this fish family. 

Typically, submarines launch the missile from underwater, and it follows a low trajectory, skimming the water’s surface before hitting its target.

Future Prospects and Research

Flying fish at Rouen's Museum of Natural History
Flying fish at Rouen’s Museum of Natural History / Marc Dozier via Getty Images

In the early 1900s, researchers frequently studied this marine creature as potential models for developing airplanes.

In modern times, researchers still study the behavior of these fish to gain a better understanding of their gliding strategies. 

The knowledge gained from studying these fish species will contribute to our understanding of the biomechanics of water-to-air transition. 

This may be potentially beneficial for the design of underwater and aerial vehicles.

Some ongoing research also focuses on the impact of climate change on the distribution and behavior of this marine species.

Ocean temperature shifts, current alterations, and changes in food availability potentially harm this species’ populations, which in turn can impact the overall health of open ocean ecosystems.

This research will inform conservation measures to protect this species and their ecosystem in general. 

Conclusion

The flying fish is a fascinating family of ray-finned fish renowned for their ability to “fly.” 

While they do more gliding than actual flying, this fish species can cover several miles by leaping out of the water repeatedly. 

They use this adaptation to escape from underwater predators. 

They live near the ocean surface, where they feed on plankton and other tiny marine organisms. 

Worldwide, their populations remain relatively stable, but human activities, pollution, and climate change significantly affect them as pelagic species.

Their role in nutrient circling and contribution to the overall health of their ecosystem makes them worth protecting.

Sources:

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