Media Releases

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