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Secret to flying fish wings revealed

December 10, 2010

TORONTO, ON  – A grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC), has pro­vid­ed the most defin­i­tive answer yet to the curi­ous ques­tion, “How did fly­ing fish get their wings?”

Eric Lewallen, a PhD stu­dent in ecol­o­gy and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Scar­bor­ough (UTSC), is the lead author on the first mol­e­c­u­lar study of genet­ic relat­ed­ness among species of fly­ing fish.

Lewallen’s research con­firms what sci­en­tists have long hypothesized—that the wide vari­ety of “fly­ing” strate­gies found in fish around the world are all the result of a sin­gle evo­lu­tion­ary chain of events.

“Our results show that fly­ing fish are mono­phylet­ic, which means they all share a com­mon ances­tor,” says Lewallen. “This sug­gests that true glid­ing behav­ior in fish evolved just once, and all the mod­i­fi­ca­tions we see today can be traced back to that one event.”

Sci­en­tists believe fish evolved var­i­ous glid­ing abil­i­ties in order to evade spe­cif­ic preda­tors such as tunas, dol­phins and seabirds.

Approx­i­mate­ly 50 species of fly­ing fish can be found in the trop­i­cal and sub­trop­i­cal regions of the Pacif­ic, Atlantic and Indi­an oceans. Their “wings” are real­ly just enlarged fins, accom­pa­nied by spe­cial­ized mus­cles, which togeth­er allow them to burst out of the water and glide above the ocean sur­face for short peri­ods of time.

“The shock­ing part,” says Lewallen, “is that fly­ing fish­es are so abundant—they’re found in every major trop­i­cal ocean—yet many basic ques­tions regard­ing their ecol­o­gy and evo­lu­tion remain unan­swered.”

Some species have two pec­toral wings, while oth­ers have two pec­toral and two pelvic wings. The two-winged species can exit the water quick­ly and usu­al­ly glide in a straight line. Four-winged species can glide for hun­dreds of metres at a time and can even maneu­ver in mid-air to change direc­tion.

Due to the high cost of con­duct­ing research at sea, Lewallen often worked aboard boats oper­at­ed by the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Admin­is­tra­tion (NOAA) in return for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to col­lect spec­i­mens. By day, he would work as an inde­pen­dent marine mam­mal observ­er. By night, he would catch his fly­ing fish­es using spot­lights and dip­nets.

Lewallen’s paper appears in the Bio­log­i­cal Jour­nal of the Lin­nean Soci­ety.


For more infor­ma­tion, please con­tact:

Eric Lewallen, lead author

Karen Ho
Media and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions assis­tant