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What Is a Flying Fish?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2014
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Flying fish are torpedo-shaped fish that can be found throughout the tropical waters of the world all around the equator. There are more than 40 different species of flying fish, and all have the unique ability to not only break the surface of the water but to glide above it, aided by wing-like fins. They can be up to 18 inches (about 45 cm) long, and flights of up to 1,312 feet (400 meters) have been recorded.

The different species of flying fish share characteristics that allow them to surface and glide. A forked tail and long, slender body aid them in picking up speed underwater, while two or four large, wing-like pectoral fins are used to help keep them aloft. The lower lobe of the forked tail is larger, and is used like a motor when below the water to help the fish keep altitude. Young fish have mottled, variegated color patterns that become solid as they mature, and also sport a pair of whiskers that disappear as the fish approach adulthood.

Their unique mode of transport is used out of necessity. Flying fish are food for predators like swordfish, marlin, tuna, and other large fish. When being pursued by such a predator, the flying fish begins by picking up speed underwater in order to become airborne and elude its pursuer.

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While swimming, it can reach speeds of up to 37 miles (60 km) per hour. When the flying fish angles itself upward, it can break the surface of the water and begin gliding with its tail still in the water. The tail works as a motor, building up additional speed before it breaks into the air.

Rather than flapping its wing-like fins like a bird, the flying fish holds its fins steady and glides in the same fashion as a flying squirrel or sugar glider. At the height of its flight, it can glide up to 4 feet (1.2 m) above the water. In a single glide, the flying fish can travel up to 655 feet (200 m). Instead of dropping back below the surface, it can dip its tail beneath the water, flap the enlarged, lower lobe, and return to the air.

Fishermen take advantage of this marine fish's combination of flight and attraction to lights. A common way to fish for these types of fish is to head out into the ocean at night, in canoes equipped with bright lights. These lights act as lures, and when the flying fishes leap out of the water to go toward the light, they are beached in the canoes.

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