American Oceans

Needlefish

Scientific name: Belonidae

There are many fantastic and unique fish that call the ocean their home. If you go diving in a reef, it may seem like something new catches your eye every time you turn your head. Some stand out and generate more curiosity than the rest of the fish in the sea. One of those fish is the needlefish.

needlefish swimming around the reef

If you’re interested in needlefish, this article is the perfect place to learn about them. We’ll start with a quick overview of needlefish, give some scientific facts and then finish off with some fun, exciting needlefish facts.

By the end of this article, you will be a needlefish expert!

What Are Needlefish? Quick Overview

Needlefish are a species of fish that belong to the Belonidae needlefish family.

keeltail needlefish, Platybelone argalus

Their long, needle-like bodies characterize them, hence the name needlefish. This body shape helps them to swim quickly through the water, often reaching speeds of up to 60km/h!

Needlefish have a maximum length of 90cm, but some species are known to reach up to 1.5 meters. They are typically colored in blues, greens, and silvers. Many needlefish species are found worldwide – from northern Europe to the southern tip of South America.

Scientific Facts and Information

Although their shape and size are iconic, they are sometimes mistaken for other small fish, including the Atlantic needlefish. Contrary to popular belief, the Atlantic needlefish is a subset of the needlefish species.

Scientific Classification

Needlefish are classified under the Belonidae family, placing them in the same family as garfish, flying fish, and sauries.

full beak needle fish head and eye

All the fish in this family have distinctive long narrow bodies. It is not unsurprising that many people think that needlefish are garfish.

They belong to the Beloniformes order, which houses over 80 species of needlefish. Needlefish are members of the suborder Atherinomorpha, a diverse and widespread group of fish that includes sand lances, needlefishes, halfbeaks, and medakas. They are distantly related to needlefish.

Description

Needlefish have many distinctive features including long, narrow bodies and needle-like snouts. Their large eyes are located at the top of their head, while their mouth is at the bottom.

Red Sea needlefish

They have two dorsal fins, while their pectoral and ventral fins are small. Atlantic needlefish have tiny scales, usually ranging from 10-20 rows.

Since needlefish are predators, they have rows of sharp teeth to help them catch their prey. They mainly feed on smaller fish and other aquatic organisms.

Many other long, slender fish are in the ocean, and Atlantic needlefish are often confused with houndfish, ballyhoo, or garfish. The best way to identify needlefish is by their needle-like snouts and large eyes atop their heads.

Additionally, you can differentiate needlefish by looking at their mouths. Ballyhoos have a long lower jaw and a short upper jaw, while Atlantic needlefish have long upper and lower jaws. Finally, needlefish are much small than the far larger houndfish and garfish.

Diet and Prey 

Needlefish are predator fish that feed on smaller fish. Some of their favorite prey include shrimp and small fish like killfishes and silversides. They have rows of sharp needle-like teeth to help them catch their prey.

crocodile needlefish

Their needle-like shape also helps them stay agile when chasing their prey, allowing them to move through the water and catch their food quickly.

Needlefish are masterful hunters of smaller fish and will patiently stalk their prey for an extended period of time before making a fatal attack.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Needlefish reproduce in the spring and summer, usually near estuaries or shallow waters.

The female needlefish lay eggs attached to plants and rocks, keeping them safe until they hatch. The eggs hatch after 5-7 days, depending on the water temperature.

School of reef needlefish

The needlefish larvae are tiny and transparent, which helps them to hide from predators. After about a month, the juvenile needlefish become more developed, and their needle-like shape becomes apparent.

Needlefish can live up to 5-6 years in the wild and grow up to 90 cm in length. They reach sexual maturity between the ages of 2-3 years.

Habitat

Needlefish inhabit temperate waters, shallows, and estuaries near vegetation or rocks. They are most active during the day but can also be seen at night, usually in search of food.

Needlefish swimming the reef

They are common, and most species are found in temperate and tropical coastal regions. You can find needlefish populations in the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean sea, and the Western Pacific Ocean.

There have even been a few instances of spotting them in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Some needlefish populations will live in estuaries where saltwater and freshwater bodies mix, including the Chesapeake bay. This species also likes to live in shallow waters. They are a widely distributed species. 

Predators

Despite being predators, Atlantic needlefish are a part of the food chain and must constantly be on the lookout for other fish that want to eat them.

Ospreys that catch needlefish

Their main predators include larger fish such as sharks, barracuda, and tuna. They compete with humans for food and are sometimes caught for commercial and recreational purposes.

They are especially vulnerable to birds of prey like the osprey since needlefish swim close to the surface of the water. These birds can swoop down and pick them right off the top of the water.

Behavior

Needlefish are active swimmers and can reach speeds up to 60 km/h. They are known to use their speed and precision when hunting for prey.

Needlefish jump out of the water, which can be pretty alarming. Scientists believe that this behavior is part of their hunting and jumping out of the water allows them to surprise their prey.

Fun and Interesting Facts

Needlefish jump

While needlefish are an essential part of marine ecosystems, they are also fascinating creatures. Here are some fun facts about needlefish that you may not have known:

  • Needlefish can jump as high as 2 meters above the water surface.
  • They swim in pairs or small groups and display complex social behaviors.
  • They have sharp needle-like teeth that help them catch their prey.

Are They a Threat to Humans?

Despite their needle-like shape and sharp teeth, needlefish are harmless to humans. They are not known to be aggressive and usually avoid contact with people. Many people believe the myth that needlefish bite humans. 

They are, however, considered a nuisance in some parts of the world due to their tendency to jump out of the water when disturbed.

How to Catch a Needlefish

Needlefish can be pretty tricky to catch as they are fast and agile. The best way to catch them is by trolling with a lure or bait or using a net.

It is important to remember that needlefish are a valuable food source, so it is best to release them after they have been caught.

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