Needlefishes and Relatives: Beloniformes

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CALIFORNIA FLYINGFISH (Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


Needlefishes and their relatives, the flyingfishes, halfbeaks, sauries, and rice fishes, are long fishes. The dorsal (DOOR-suhl) and anal (AY-nuhl) fins are far back on the body. The dorsal fin is the one along the midline of the back. The anal fin is the one along the midline of the belly. The lateral (LAT-uhr-uhl) line is on the belly. This line, a series of pores and tiny tubes used for sensing vibrations is usually along the sides of a fish's body.

Needlefishes have a sleek body and very long upper and lower jaws studded with sharp teeth. In halfbeaks the lower jaw is much longer than the upper jaw. Flyingfishes are streamlined and have very large pectoral (PECK-ter-uhl) fins, which are the front pair, corresponding to the front legs of four-footed animals. Rice fishes do not look like the other members of this group. They have a less streamlined body, large eyes, an upturned mouth, and a long anal fin.


Needlefishes and their relatives live all over the world.


Some needlefishes and their relatives live in the surface waters of the open ocean and in coastal habitats such as estuaries (EHS-chew-air-eez), the areas where rivers meet the sea. The freshwater species live in lakes and rivers.


Needlefishes and their relatives eat small fishes, animal plankton, water and land insects, algae, sea grasses, and waste material. Plankton are microscopic plants and, in this case, animals drifting in water. Algae (AL-jee) are plantlike growths that live in water and have no true roots, stems, or leaves.


Some fishes in the needlefish group can fly or glide through the air. Another unusual characteristic is a strong attraction to lights at night. The eggs of many open-water species of needlefishes and their relatives have sticky threads used to attach the eggs to floating debris or seaweed. The larvae (LAR-vee) can feed as soon as they hatch. Larvae are animals in an early stage and must change form before becoming adults. Some species in the needlefish group bear live young rather than releasing eggs. Other species release eggs that have been fertilized (FUR-teh-lyzed), or penetrated by sperm, inside the female.


In rare cases needlefishes can cause injury or death. In one such case, a surfer was killed when the snout of a fast-swimming needlefish went through his eye socket and into his brain.


A flyingfish swimming at a speed of about 33 feet (10 meters) per second breaks the surface at an angle and taxis for 16 to 82 feet (5 to 25 m) by rapidly beating its tail fin in the water. Then it breaks into free flight for as far as 164 feet (50 meters) at a height that can reach 26 feet (8 meters). Once it loses altitude, the fish can taxi again with its tail fin without returning to the water, so flights can be stretched to about 1,300 feet (400 meters).


Needlefishes are caught at night by fishermen using lights. In areas where there are many flyingfishes, fishermen leave a light suspended all night over a canoe partially filled with water and return in the morning to a boat full of fish. Freshwater halfbeaks, rice fishes, and needlefishes are used in aquariums. In Thailand, halfbeaks are sold as fighting fish. Rice fish are bred in captivity for use in research.


The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists two species of needlefishes and their relatives as Critically Endangered, three as Endangered, eight as Vulnerable, and one species as Near Threatened. Critically Endangered means facing extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. Endangered means facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild. Vulnerable mean facing a high risk of extinction in the wild. Near Threatened means likely to become threatened with extinction in the future.

CALIFORNIA FLYINGFISH (Cheilopogon pinnatibarbatus californicus): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: California flyingfish reach a length of 15 inches (38 centimeters). They are four-winged flyingfishes, meaning both the pectoral and the pelvic fins are enlarged. The pelvic fins are the rear pair, corresponding to the rear legs of four-footed animals. The lower part of the tail fin is much larger than the upper part. These fish are bluish gray on the back and silver on the belly.

Geographic range: California flyingfish live off the coast of North America from Oregon to southern Baja California.

Habitat: California flyingfish live near the surface in open water.

Diet: California flyingfish eat animal plankton and small fish.

Behavior and reproduction: California flyingfish can leap out of the water and glide for long distances, possibly to evade predators (PREH-duh-ters), animals that hunt and kill other animals for food. These fish live in schools and spawn, or reproduce, in summer. The eggs drift in open water and stick to floating seaweed and other debris.

California flyingfish and people: California flyingfish are sometimes used as bait.

Conservation status: California flyingfish are not threatened or endangered. ∎


Physical characteristics: Californian needlefish reach a length of about 39 inches (1 meter). The body is very thin and has a long snout and sharp teeth. The tail fin is notched but does not have a deep fork.

Geographic range: Californian needlefish live along the coast of North and South America from California to Peru. They also live around the Galápagos Islands.

Habitat: Californian needlefish live in lagoons, harbors, and coastal areas. They frequent mangrove forests and enter freshwater.

Diet: Californian needlefish feed on small fishes.

Behavior and reproduction: Californian needlefish sometimes form large schools. They leap out of the water when threatened. The eggs of these fish are attached to floating plants by long threads. The larvae drift in surface waters. The eggs hatch about two weeks after being released.

Californian needlefish and people: Californian needlefish are sold fresh in fish markets. In rare cases, these fish cause injury or death by impalement.

Conservation status: Californian needlefish are not threatened or endangered. ∎



Byatt, Andrew, Alastair Fothergill, and Martha Holmes. Blue Planet. New York: DK, 2001.

Gilbert, Carter Rowell, and James D. Williams. National Audubon Society Field Guide to Fishes: North America. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Web sites:

"Flying Fish!!!" OceanLink. (accessed on October 11, 2004).

Scott, Susan. "Needlefish." Hawaiian Lifeguard Association. (accessed on October 11, 2004).