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Flying fish are ray-finned fish with highly modified pectoral fins. Despite their name, flying fish aren’t capable of powered flight. Instead they propel themselves out of the water at speeds of more than 35 miles (56 kilometers) an hour. Once in the air, their rigid “wings” allow them to glide for up to 650 feet (200 meters). The winglike pectoral fins are primarily for gliding—the fish hold the fins flat at their sides when swimming. Their streamlined bodies reduce drag when the fish are “flying.”
Another interesting characteristic of the flying fish is its unevenly forked tail, which has a top lobe that’s shorter than the bottom lobe. Flying fish can be up to 18 inches (45 centimeters) long, but average 7 to 12 inches (17 to 30 centimeters).
There are roughly 40 species of flying fish. Flying fish are tropical and temperate marine species that can be seen off both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States. They are also found in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Open oceans provide a habitat for most flying fish, but some live instead on the outskirts of coral reefs.
It’s thought that flying fish evolved a flying mechanism to escape from their many oceanic predators. Once in the air, though, they sometimes become food for birds. Young flying fish may have filaments protruding from their lower jaws that camouflage them as plant blossoms.
Flying fish eat a variety of foods, but plankton make up a large part of their diet. They sometimes eat small crustaceans as well.
Spawning takes place in the open ocean, near the water’s surface. A female deposits eggs, which are attached by sticky filaments to seaweed and floating debris. Newly hatched flying fish have whiskers near their mouths, which disguises them as plants, thus protecting them from predators. A flying fish lives for an average of five years.
Flying fish populations are stable. These fish are commercially fished in some places. Flying fish are attracted to light and are relatively easy to catch because of their tendency to leap into small, well-lit boats.
Some flying fish also have winglike pelvic fins that help them to glide. These species are called four-winged flying fish.
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
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