Cheilopogon melanurus, off South Padre Island. Photo by Tripp Davenport.
F IS H Y F A C T S
One cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow. ~ Sir Richard Burton, a Victorian explorer, writer, and translator, known for his travels in Asia and Africa Powered flight has evolved only four times in the animal world: insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. But powerless flight (i.e. gliding and parachuting) is utilized by a myriad of creatures. Flyingfish are one of the more sensationalized members of this group, understandably. Fish are one of the last animals you would expect to see in the air, though they are not the only gliding denizen of the deep (but that’s for another time). Flyingfish belong to the family Exococetidae, from the Greek meaning to lie down outside. The connection escapes me… Exococetidae is divided into seven genera containing (depending on different definitions) 45 to 64 species. Our own local flying fish is Cheilopogon melanurus, the Atlantic flyingfish (though a handful of flyingfish species share this common name). Cheilopogon is from the Greek meaning barbed lip, and melanurus is from the Latin meaning black-tailed. If their beautiful “wings” aren’t enough to identify them, another characteristic of flyingfish is an uneven and deeply forked tail, with the lower lobe longer than the upper lobe. Many species also have enlarged pelvic fins (in addition to the winged pectoral fins) and are known as four-winged flyingfish. C. melanurus is one of these. When landing, flyingfish can hit the water at high speeds, so they have a hard lower jaw to protect their mouth, and in some species, the lower jaw is also much larger than the upper jaw. Flyingfish reach up to 18 inches in length, but average only 7 to 12 inches. Relative to their body size, the eyes of flyingfish are quite large, and flat. This gives them good vision both in and out of water. Juvenile flyingfish do not resemble adults. They 66 | July 2016
have a colorful appearance and long whiskers at the side of their mouth that camouflage them as plant blossoms. Their markedly different appearance from adults has led to confusion among scientists as to the actual number of flyingfish species. Like most flyingfish species, C. melanurus has an elongate body that is iridescent blue above and grayishsilver below. Pectoral fins are extremely long, reaching past the dorsal fin, with a distinctive color pattern: a dark base and outer rays with a lighter triangular band in the middle. Young Atlantic flyingfish up to 6 inches in length have transparent pectorals. Adult C. melanurus can reach up to about 16 inches in length, but is more common around 10 inches. Much remains unknown about how modern flyingfish developed their gliding abilities, but fossils from a nowextinct family of flyingfish may hold the answers. In 2009, scientists in China excavated bones from a marine fish named Potanichthys xingyiensis, meaning winged fish (Greek) from Xingyi (the city near where the fossil was found). The fish lived about 235 to 242 million years ago, the Middle Triassic, and was apparently capable of gliding just like modern flyingfish. It had greatly enlarged pectoral fins and an uneven / deeply forked tail. Modern flyingfish (Exococetidae) are not descendants of this species, however. All of today’s flyingfish are closely related to one another, and as a family aren’t much older than bats, having evolved perhaps 65 million years ago. P. xingyiensis’s ancient lineage, family Thoracopteridae, evolved the ability to glide independently over 240 million years ago. Understanding how the thoracopterids evolved could help explain the evolution of gliding in modern flyingfishes. In 2014, scientists (also in China) unearthed the oldest and most primitive thoracopterid discovered
The July 2016 issue of Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine.