Project Manaia

The Flying, Walking, Puzzling Gurnard

Flying Gurnard wings close

A fish that flies, walks, and of course swims, Dactylopterus volitans is a fish of many talents—and some confusion.

Both its common name, flying gurnard, and its species name (volitans refers in Latin to flying), imply that Dactylopterus volitans might be a member of the flying fish family (Exocoetidae). But flying gurnards cannot leap out of the water and “fly” for short distances, like the Exocoetidae. The flying gurnard in fact is a bottom dwelling fish that appears somewhat nondescript while foraging or resting. When it is startled however, the flying gurnard seems to turn into another creature altogether. Its small, linear body suddenly transforms into an ethereal, oval shape with large “wings” speckled with tan, white and a brilliant blue which also outlines these fan-like wings.

Flying Gurnard wings open

The “wings” are actually part of the flying gurnard’s pectoral fins which are usually tucked against the fish’s sides and not obvious to the casual observer. Though the expanded pectoral fins might look like they would help the gurnard to “fly” through the water, they are not particularly useful in a fast getaway. To swim quickly, the flying gurnard pulls in the large rays and vigorously uses its dorsal and anal fins to flee.

A walking fish?

Though the large, rounded portion of their pectoral fins are beautiful to see, the front parts may be even more amazing. The flying gurnard’s pectorals are split into four sections, with three finger-like rays near its head. The flying gurnard can use these “fingers” to “walk” along the sea floor, walking, digging and sensing their prey, usually small mollusks, crustaceans and fish.

This “walking” ability is one of several traits that the flying gurnard shares with another family of fish, the sea robins (Triglidae). Flying gurnards and sea robins are both bottom feeders and they both have spiny, armored bodies. In the flying gurnard’s case, their protective sheathing starts on their large heads where they have bony plates that narrow into two sharp points. In addition, most of the rest of their body, which can grow up to 40 cm, is covered by serrate and cutting edges, especially at the tail end.

Flying Gurnard young

Sea Robins & Flying Gurnards

Another trait the flying gurnard shares with the sea robins is its ability to make a grunting noise with its swim bladder. Gurnard means to grunt and is yet another area of confusion in the name of this fish. Sea robins are also known as the true gurnards. With so many similarities between flying gurnards and sea robins, it is not surprising that they were long thought to be part of the same family. But just like flying gurnards don’t fit into the flying fish family, they also are not part of the sea robin family.

In fact, according to genomic research, flying gurnards have their very own genus: volitans being the only species in the genus Dactylopterus. It turns out that the flying gurnard is more closely related to the pipefish, seahorses and trumpetfish, than it is to the sea robins. While it has its own genus, the flying gurnard does have six close relations, in the Dactylopteridae family. These Indo-Pacific species are in the genus Dactyloptena and share many similarities with Dactylopterus volitans and they are also known as flying gurnards.

Flying Gurnard and Sea Robin

Where to find Flying Gurnards?

Flying gurnards are frequently found in shallow waters and have been found to depths of 100 meters. Despite its armored body, the flying gurnard is a popular prey species among fish and even sea birds. Flying gurnards even sometimes travel with predatory companions. These small predatory fish are attracted to the flying gurnard, but not to eat it. They travel close by, picking off algae and small creatures that the flying gurnard disturbs as it digs on the sea floor for its own food.

The flying gurnard is a common species, but this complex little fish has a lot of very uncommon traits that add to the amazing diversity in the Mediterranean Sea.

Written by Rachel Endicott

SY WAYA WAYA photo by Marc Bielefeld

To Whom we belong

The poem was inspired by my stay on the Waya Waya sailing ship from 23 July to…

Read More

Marine Phytoplankton

Phytoplankton are a species of microalgae that dwell in water. They are photosynthetic organisms that…

Read More

Ocean Warming

Image by Sebastian Arie Voortman via Pexels When heat is trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere…

Read More
Translate »