An evolutionary tradeoff: “flying” in fish helps them escape fish predators, but exposes them to avian ones

I don’t know how the BBC manages to get this kind of footage, but their nature shows far outstrip any I’ve seen from other organizations. This short video on flying fishes comes from the “Hunger” episode of the “Oceans” series, and shows how the “flying” adaptation exposes them to new dangers, and new selection pressures. Presumably the advantage of escaping predatory fish outweighs the disadvantage of exposing yourself to predatory birds.

How do they “fly”, and how far? National Geographic reports that they can stay airborne for 400 meters, extending their flight by using their tails to taxi.

There are about 40 species of fish that can glide in this way, but I haven’t taken the time to see how many times the trait has evolved independently, or whether they’re all related and it evolved just once. Perhaps an astute reader can tell us.

h/t: Nicole Reggia


  1. Posted October 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  2. Christopher
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    wow, that was fantastic! And really, as a kid, there was nothing more confusing and fascinating that the idea that there was a flying fish. I can only imagine my reaction to the first time hearing about them as a wee lad, something along the lines of Gary Coleman’s “What’chu talking’ ’bout, Willis?”, and they still fascinate me to this day.

    • ToddP
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      Ha! Same for me. I can totally recall, as a kid, first reading about flying fish and thinking “What?! COOL!”

      The sea and all its creatures are endlessly fascinating.

  3. Graham
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Freshwater hatchetfish (commonly found in pet stores) can “fly”. They are characins and so are related to tetras and piranhas but they are not closely related to marine flying fish. The behaviour has certainly evolved more than once.

    I’m sure Richard Dawkins wrote about them in one of his books.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Well remembered

      It’s covered in Chapter Four of Climbing Mount Improbable

    • Dan Fromm
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Not all. My wife and I collected Gasteropelecus maculatus in Panama and still have a couple of live ones. Long-lived fish, we collected them in March 2002. They’re midwater swimmers in the wild and in captivity and don’t go airborne when pursued.

  4. GBJames
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Wow That’s amazing.

  5. JohnnieCanuck
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    There’s another hazard they incurred when they took to the air. Ships. The small tanker I was on in the Caribbean would often have a couple of them drying on the deck. They would take flight when the bow wave passed over them.

  6. Mike Anderson
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Completely anecdotal but I’ve seen the most flying fish far from land, where there are very few birds (mainly albatrosses) and of course no nesting grounds with babies to feed.

    IOW my pet theory is that flying ability is more advantageous far from land.

    • Posted October 16, 2016 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Interesting hypothesis, and testable.

  7. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    Suppose we replay the history of life on Earth with sea level several kilometers higher, so that the continents are completely submerged. Obviously there’d be no birds descended from dinosaurs, but with airborne niches vacant, might flying fish radiate to fill them?

    • Posted October 16, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

      I predict predator species of flying fish would have evolved. Good job god relented after only forty days and forty nights.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

      Of course if they wanted to indulge in ‘proper’ long-distance flying, they’d also have to evolve lungs. My hunch is that would be more difficult than developing their fins into wings.

      And both would have to evolve simultaneously, since there would be no use for lungs until they could fly for extended periods.

      I think the flying (with gills) might represent a subsidiary peak on Mount Improbable, and to reach the higher flying-plus-lungs peak would require descending to a saddle – which evolution just doesn’t do.

      But maybe I’m just not imaginative enough.


      • darrelle
        Posted October 17, 2016 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        Swim bladders.

      • Jeff Lewis
        Posted October 17, 2016 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        Just to expand on what Darrelle said, lungs came first, then swim bladders. Here’s a page with a good discussion and an informative cladogram:

        What throws us off is that teleosts, which have swim bladders, became hugely successful, and biased our perception of what’s normal in fish. Carl Zimmer discussed this in his book, At the Water’s Edge. And it’s been a while since I read it, so I’m probably not remembering it all correctly, but he offered a few reasons for why swim bladders may have won out over lungs. First, maybe the buoyancy control they provided really was that much more beneficial than the ability to breathe atmospheric oxygen. Maybe this tradeoff was influenced by the evolution of pterosaurs – making coming to the surface to breathe riskier than it had been before. Maybe it had something to do with teleosts evolving coronary arteries to keep the heart oxygenated and not needing the supplemental oxygen from lungs.

        Well, a little looking found this article by Zimmer which touched on this:

    • Darren Garrison
      Posted October 17, 2016 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      No, the upper oceans would be more or less a desert (as is much of the ocean far from land on Earth now.) Life in the ocean is limited by the amount of trace elements available to it–trace elements that are washed out of rivers, blown off by the land by the wind, or churned up in shallow waters by tides. Life is bottlenecked by the necessary element/compound that is least available in the environment. (Think about algal blooms from fertilizer runoff.)

      Life needs energy and nutrients. On an ocean planet, where the sunlight is, the minerals are missing and where the minerals are the sunlight is missing. So a fully oceanic planet is not a good place to look for diverse, complex life. Expect complex life to be mostly clinging to the margins of hydrothermal vents. (Of course, you could imagine a planet with a great deal of strong volcanic activity stirring nutrients to the surface of the ocean, but I’d think those waters would be pretty acidic–fine for Earth’s extremeophiles, but unsuitable for any Earth-style complex organisms, at least.)

      A very good book that touches on this problem with ocean planets is Peter Douglas Ward’s Life As We Do Not Know it.

      • Posted October 17, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        The sea could have limestone shallows like the Cathedral formation where the complex life of the Burgess shale fossils formed.

    • eric
      Posted October 17, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      “Piranhatross – scourge of waterworld.” Shamefully brought to you by Nabisco and the Syfy channel. To be followed by Piranhatross vs. Octoshark.

  8. Flemur
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Claim there was a flying fish about 240 million years ago, unrelated to modern flying fish. So, separate evolution in that case. They were interested in the climatic implications since fish might not be able to glide at < 20C.

  9. Lars
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    A BBC camera crew visited Barro Colorado when I was working there, working on getting footage of reproductive behaviour of animal species for a special like this. They would spend days obtaining just a few minutes of action, if that, and this usually involved hiking a long ways back into the bush on steep trails – Barro Colorado used to be a hilltop. And this was back when camera equipment and lights were large and cumbersome.
    So the dedication that goes into BBC nature film production isn’t a new thing.

    • Jonathan Wallace
      Posted October 17, 2016 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      One of the features of BBC wildlife documentaries in the last few years is that they are often followed by a short little film of how they actually obtained a particularly outstanding sequence in the main film. As well as illustrating the ingenuity involved, the recurring message of these little filmettes is the large amount of effort, frustration and physical hardship that goes into getting the sequence. Lots of things have to come together at exactly the right moment and there is endless scope for things to go wrong.

  10. W.Benson
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    The video seems to show flying-fish in the air actively evade frigate bird predation by veering and diving(1:33; 1:40, 1:42)!! Sometimes fish seem to try (unsuccessfully in the video) to escape by gliding upwards (1:20; 2:11). Selection must keep performance near tip-top in these fish.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      Gliding upwards is a dead-loss tactic against birds, since the ff’s have no propulsion in the air and going up costs them airspeed, making them a sitting duck for the far more manouvreable birds.

      Since it robs them of most of their forward speed, it could be quite effective against pursuing big fish, who may overshoot. I wonder if flying fish (in the absence of birds) can do an Immelman turn?

      Danger on all sides, I wonder if flying fish are permanently paranoid.


  11. Posted October 16, 2016 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    chinese snakehead fish eat everything and walks to the next lake

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted October 16, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

      And apparently breathes air while walking using a modified gill arch.

      • Posted October 16, 2016 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

        They are an invasive species and have made it to BC, Canada.

  12. rickmcwilliams
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I always love seeing flying fish. I am often at sea in the near costal waters of California and Mexico. The giant flying fish is still rater small about 18 inches. These beauties fly in hops of about 300 ft with a tail dip between each hop. I have seen pairs flying in formation.

    I sometimes fly a seaplane where I get a wider view. Flying fish have some form of in water communication. They often do a simultaneous launch of a dozen fish over a 500 ft area. Amazing fish.

  13. Vaal
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    That was at once thrilling amazing and sort of mortifying. In the end my thought was “what an absolute bummer of a way to live – having to flip in and out of the water swimming for your life, giant monsters snapping at you from below and above!”

    Reminds me of Louis CK’s comedy bit about
    how little thanks we give to our having made it out of the food chain. “That’s a MAJOR upgrade!”

  14. keith cook +/-
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    The last shot of one being plucked out of mid flight by a leaping predator shows it’s a strategy (flight)but some days it’s just not worth getting out of bed..

  15. Dale Franzwa
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    For you anglers out there, one of the hottest new lures for offshore fishing in So Cal and Mexican waters is called the Yummy Flyer. It resembles a flying fish and is trolled behind a sportfishing boat suspended from a kite so the lure skips across the surface of the water. This lure is said to drive sport fish (dorado, tunas, bill fish, etc.) crazy. Quite effective.

  16. Sagan Worshipper
    Posted October 16, 2016 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    How good is their eyesight when they are airborne opposed to when they are submerged? Can they see equally well in and out of the water?

  17. Greta West
    Posted October 17, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Flying fish getting caught by a bird: “Oh shit!”

  18. chascpeterson
    Posted October 17, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    ‘course, then, you got your flying squid. They can’t go as far, because they can’t do the tail-sculling trick, but they briefly exhibit true powered flight, gaining altitude by jetting water.
    Pics here, here, here.

    • Greta West
      Posted October 18, 2016 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      But their eyes are at the wrong end. They can only see where they’ve been.

  19. nicky
    Posted October 18, 2016 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Both the dorades (aka dolphins or dolphinfish) and the frigates hunt in groups. I wonder to what degree dorades and frigates actually coordinate their hunts. Are the frigates just honing in on the dorades’ hunt? Or do they kind of support each other, and if so, is there some kind of ‘planning’?

    Note also the dorade plucking a flying fish out of the air, as if the frigates aren’t bad enough.
    Nightmarish from a flying fish pov. Absolutely fantastic video, albeit heartbraking, for us.

    I would be very surprised if flying fish and other water bound flyers would not have arisen multiple times.

  20. Posted October 18, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Flying fish are also vulnerable to predation underwater. Many pelagic seabirds such as boobies and tropicbirds are plunge divers and will take the flying fish underwater. I’m on a ship right now off Brazil and in fact saw this very thing this morning!

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