Ask A Scientist

How can flying fish lift off? 

Asked by: Emma McCaffery
School: Johnson City Intermediate School
Grade: 4
Teacher: Rebecca Duell
Hobbies/Interests: Dance, softball, basketball
Career Interest: Third grade teacher, firefighter

Answer from Mike Losinger

PhD Student

Research area: Animal behavior and communication, neurophysiology  Interests/hobbies: Listening to music, reading, hiking, camping

Flying fish are a great example of how animals evolve different ways to escape predators. There are 64 species of flying fish, and they are the only fish in the world that can leap out of the water and glide over long distances.

Flying fish don’t actually have wings and they don’t fly like birds, bats or insects do. Instead, they use their fins to glide through the air, sort of like a paper airplane. Flying fish can glide for 600 feet, and up to 1,000 feet or more when they use wind currents that are made from waves!

Like other types of fish, flying fish have multiple sets of fins that they use to swim. But flying fish have very long and thin fins on the sides of their body that they use like wings. When they are ready to take off, they swim to the top surface of the water and spread their fins out. They can reach speeds of up to 37 miles per hour underwater by quickly beating their tail fins. Then, they jump out of the water and pull their side fins up to catch the wind and glide through the air.

Flying fish can reach up to 4 feet out of the water when gliding! This allows them to escape from predators, like marlin, dolphins and swordfish, who cannot glide through the air.

Some animals that live on land that can glide are "flying" squirrels, gliding possums, and even a flying snake. Unlike other gliding animals, flying snakes don’t have any wing-like structures; they whip their body into a C-shape after jumping off a branch, moving in a similar way to a Frisbee!

Gliding animals can’t reach the same heights that flying animals can, and they can’t take flight from the ground. But gliding uses less energy than flying, since gliding animals don’t beat their wings like flying animals do. Even though they can’t go as far, gliding animals have more energy to use for other activities, like finding food or mates.

Last Updated: 3/1/17