Has anyone read or seen Life of Pi? I’ve done both, and though my memory of the book is a bit fuzzy because I read it in one day (we were seeing the movie the next day and I have to read books before I see the movies), and I don’t remember the movie that well because I had food poisoning, I do have a distinct vision of swarms of flying fish hitting Pi in the lifeboat. For some reason that memory popped up today when I was looking for a fish to blog about, so that’s what I’m going to do.

I think most people are impressed by flying fish. My theory is that evolutionarily, most animals came from the water, went to land, and then some learned to fly. That’s how I see anyway. So when a fish just jumps out of water and kind of starts flying, it’s pretty neat. Fish are supposed to be masters of living in water, but clumsy elsewhere. That’s why I always blog about fish that can do stuff on land, and now I’m writing about fish that can ‘fly’.

A very colourful flying fish in the air.  Source: http://web.engr.illinois.edu/~li151/cs498dh3/proj3/fish.jpg
A very colourful flying fish in the air.
Source: http://web.engr.illinois.edu/~li151/cs498dh3/proj3/fish.jpg

Flying fish are members of the family Exocoetidae, and there are over 60 species. They live all the world’s oceans, but prefer warmer waters in subtropical and tropical areas. They are usually found in the open ocean, though some species hang around coral reefs. They feed on plankton, and are pretty mundane little fish until they decide to leave the water.

These fish are expert gliders, and are not actually capable of powered flight. Instead, the fish wiggles its tail rapidly while in the water (up to 70 times per second) and tilts its ‘wings’ (modified pectoral fins) upwards, which lifts the animal out of the water. The fish drops back into the water by folding its wings and slipping beneath the surface. If the fish doesn’t feel like heading back into the ocean, it can lower its tail into the water to power another glide. In this way, flying fish have been recorded travelling impressive distances of 400 meters or more. They can ‘fly’ at speeds of over 70 km/h. Not bad for a little fish.

A group of flying fish underwater. They look perfectly normal, don't they? They are under a piece of vegetation - which is where these fish lay their eggs. Hundreds of them will lay on the plant until it sinks under the water. Watch BBC's Life for an awesome video of it.  Photo credit: Jonathan Smith
A group of flying fish underwater. They look perfectly normal, don’t they? They are under a piece of vegetation – which is where these fish lay their eggs. Hundreds of them will lay on the plant until it sinks under the water. Watch BBC’s Life for an awesome video of it.
Photo credit: Jonathan Smith

So why do flying fish fly? Is it for the rush? The sheer joy of soaring through the air and shedding the weight of the boring old ocean? Not quite. It’s a defence mechanism, that helps flying fish avoid predators, of which flying fish have a number. It’s not a perfect system, as some birds take advantage of flying fish glides to grab a quick meal. Still, it’s a very impressive way of avoiding death. And I’m sure some fish do it just for fun. I know I would.

As far as fish go, flying fish are probably one of my favourite species. I like to think of them as the dreamers of the fish world, fish who aimed higher than mundane lives in the ocean or trepidatious forages onto land. Flying fish instead chose to try and conquer the air, and though they haven’t completely managed it, they’ve done a pretty damned good job.

Cover image source: http://www.splashofkauai.com/e/photos/ocean/other/o_01.html

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