Fish FAQ

Source: National Marine Fisheries Services' Northeast Fisheries Science Center

Porcupine Fish

How many fish species are there?

The most often quoted estimate is 20,000. There may be as many as 20,000 more.

Which is the oldest type of fish?

The most primitive fish-like animals are those with sucking mouths, such as lampreys and hagfishes, whose evolution stopped short of the development of biting jaws. Mainly bottom-dwellers, these animals are of great interest to zoologists, for many parts of their bodies show forms and functions that help to explain some of the evolutionary steps leading from low to advanced life forms.

What is the world's largest fish? The smallest?

The largest is the whale shark, which grows to more than 50 feet in length and may weigh several tons; second largest is the basking shark, which may measure 35 to 40 feet long. The smallest fish is the tiny goby, an inhabitant of fresh-to-brackish-water lakes in Luzon, Philippines. It seldom is longer than a half inch at adulthood, yet is so abundant it supports a fishery.

What is the most common fish in the sea?

Any of the several species of Cyclothone, a deepwater fish sometimes called a “bristle mouth.” Rarely visible at depths that man can readily reach, the fish is about the size of a small minnow. It is netted at 500 meters or deeper all over the world.

Do fish sleep?

It all depends on what you mean by sleep. According to my dictionary, sleeping means closing your eyes and resting. The first thing we notice is that most fish don't have eyelids (except for sharks). Also, while some deep ocean fish never stop moving a great many fishes live nearly motionless lives and many do so on a regular diurnal/noctural cycle, some active by day others by night. So we can't generalize and say that all fish sleep like we do. But most fish do rest. Usually they just blank their minds and do what we might call daydreaming. Some float in place, some wedge themselves into a spot in the mud or the coral, some even build themselves a nest. They will still be alert for danger, but they will also be “sleeping.”

What is an anadromous fish? A catadromous fish?

An anadromous fish, born in fresh water, spends most of its life in the sea and returns to fresh water to spawn. Salmon, smelt, shad, striped bass, and sturgeon are common examples. A catadromous fish does the opposite—lives in fresh water and enters salt water to spawn. Most of the eels are catadromous.

How long do fish live?

A few weeks or months (some of the small reef fishes) to 50 years or more (sturgeons). Longevity information is still sparse, but scientists have learned that species live 10 to 20 years in temperate waters.

Do some fish give birth to living young?

Yes, many do. These are called viviparous fishes. The sea perches of the Pacific coast, for example, give birth to living young of considerable size, sometimes one-fifth the size of the mother. Several kind of sharks produce living young.

Do fish breathe air?

Yes, but not directly into the lungs as mammals do (except for some tropical fish). (Actually they breathe oxygen not air.) As water passes over a system of extremely fine gill membranes, fish absorb the water's oxygen content. Gills contain a network of fine blood vessels (capillaries) that take up the oxygen and diffuse it through the membranes.

How do fish swim? How fast?

Primarily by contracting bands of muscles in sequence on alternate sides of the body so that the tail is whipped very rapidly from side to side in a sculling motion. Vertical fins are used mainly for stabilization. Paired pectoral and pelvic fins are used primarily for stability when a fish hovers, but sometimes may be used to aid rapid forward motion. Tunas and tuna-like fish, billfish, and certain sharks are the speed champions, reaching 50 miles per hour in short bursts. Sustained swimming speeds generally range from about 5 to 10 miles per hour among strong swimmers.

Can fish swim backwards?

A number can, but usually don't. Those that can are mostly members of one of the eel families.

Do all fish swim in the horizontal position?

Most do. The sea horse is among the exceptions. Another is the shrimp fish of the Indian Ocean, which congregates in schools of several individuals and swims vertically, its long tube-like snout pointing directly upward. A catfish indigenous to the Nile and other African rivers also swims in the vertical posture. Many kinds of midwater deepsea fishes swim or rest vertically.

Do fish chew their food?

Not in the human manner. Carnivorous fish like sharks use their sharp teeth to seize and hold prey while swallowing it whole or in large pieces. Bottom dwellers such as rays are equipped with large flat teeth that crush the shellfish they consume. Herbivorous fish (grazers) often lack jaw teeth, but have tooth-like grinding mills in their throats, called pharyngeal teeth. Fish would suffocate if they tried to chew, for chewing would interfere with the passage of water over the gills, necessary for obtaining oxygen.

Can fish distinguish color?

Most fish are colorblind, despite the opinion of many sportfishermen. Fish can see color shadings, reflected light, shape, and movement, which probably accounts for the acceptance or rejection of artificial lures used by fishermen.

Why do food fish sometimes have a strong odor?

For most species, truly fresh fish is almost odorless. Fish begin to smell “fishy” when deterioration sets in, often caused by incorrect storage practices that bring about the release of oxidized fats and acids through bacterial and enzymatic action.

Is there much salt in fish?

Very little in most. More than 240 species contain so little salt that doctors recommend them in salt-free diets. Shark meat is salty—as salty as the sea the shark lives in.

How many kinds of tuna are there, and which kind makes up the biggest catch?

There are seven commercial and sport-caught tunas, as well as several related species, all of which are members of what is called the scombrid family. Commercially caught tunas consist of albacore, bigeye, blackfin, bluefin, bonito, skipjack, and yellowfin. Yellowfin, taken in the eastern Pacific and tropical Atlantic, makes up the biggest U.S. commercial catch. Albacore, caught in the eastern Pacific, is the true "white-meat" tuna; skipjack, caught throughout the world in tropical and subtropical waters, makes up the second largest U.S. commercial catch; bigeye is caught mostly in tropical waters; blackfin is caught commercially only in the Caribbean and off South America; the very large bluefin (rod-and-reel record, 1,040 pounds) is a highly prized sport catch in the Atlantic and Pacific; and the widely distributed bonito is used largely as pet food.

How do porcupine fish inflate themselves?

All puffer-like fish inflate by pumping water into special sacs when in their natural environment. Out of water, a puffer fills the sacs with air instead, and takes on a balloon-like appearance.

What is an “exotic” fish?

One not native to an area, but introduced either by accident or design. Some such species can cause problems. Often their natural predators are absent from the new area, permitting more rapid reproduction rates than those of natural inhabitants, sometimes at the expense of more desirable native fish. The “walking catfish” in Florida is an example. Thought to have escaped from a private aquarium, the catfish have shown a remarkable ability to avoid eradication efforts by man. An aggressive and voracious fish, it poses a threat to other forms of aquatic life. Population is now estimated in the millions.


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