Pilot fish, a Tiny fish With Huge Shark friends

Pilot fish, often referred to as pilotfish or pilotfishes, are a group of small marine fish that belong to the Carangidae family. These fish are known for their unique and fascinating behaviors, given their crucial ecological roles within coral reef ecosystems. In this extensive exploration we are delving into their characteristics, behavior, ecological significance, and interactions with large marine creatures, particularly sharks.


Characteristics of the pilot fish:

Pilot fish, or Naucrates ductor as it is officially known, are small fish that normally range in size from 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters). They can easily swim alongside larger marine animals like sharks and rays thanks to their streamlined, elongated body structure.

These fish have a striking appearance, with a silver-blue coloration, often featuring dark bands or stripes running vertically along their body. Thir stripes help them blend into their surroundings and make them less conspicuous to potential predators.



Habitat and Distribution:


These fish, are found worldwide. However, they are more frequently in warm tropical and subtropical waters. They live in open ocean areas, offshore islands, and coral reefs. The Atlantic, Indian, and western and central Pacific Oceans are where they are most frequently seen.


Behavior and Lifestyle:

Pilot Fish swimming next to Whitetip Shark

One of the most intriguing aspects of our tiny fish behavior is their association with larger marine animals, particularly sharks. They are often seen swimming closely alongside sharks, rays, and even large sea turtles. This behavior has led to their common name, as they appear to be “piloting” these larger creatures.


There are several hypotheses about why pilot fish engage in this behavior:


Protection: They may benefit from the protection provided by the presence of a larger predator. Potential threats are less likely to attack when a shark is nearby.


Feeding Opportunities: Pilot fish scavenge for scraps of food left behind by the larger animals they accompany. Sharks, in particular, are messy eaters, and they often leave behind small pieces of prey that they consume.


Cleaning Services: Pilot fish are known to clean the skin and gills of their larger companions. They remove parasites, dead skin, and debris, which helps maintain the health of larger marine animals.


Diet: Opportunistic feeders who scavenge food scraps from the predators they live with, although they have also been observed eating small fish, plankton, and other tiny aquatic creatures. Depending on the dietary options in their environment, their diet may change.


Reproduction: Pilot fish have a relatively unknown reproductive behavior. Like many marine species, they likely release eggs into the water column, where they hatch into larvae. These larvae then develop and grow in the open ocean before eventually settling into reef environments.


Ecological Significance: Pilot fish play a significant ecological role in coral reef ecosystems and open ocean environments. Their association with larger marine animals benefits both parties. The larger animals receive cleaning services and perhaps some protection, while these tiny fish gain access to food and safety from potential predators.


Furthermore, the cleaning behavior of these fish is essential for maintaining the health of the marine animals they service. By removing parasites and dead skin, pilot fish contribute to the overall well-being of their larger companions.


Conservation status: The well-being of pilot fish populations is, however, directly related to that of coral reefs and the larger marine ecosystem. These ecosystems are still being impacted by the ongoing dangers of climate change, overfishing, habitat degradation, and pollution, which may have an indirect impact on pilot fish populations.


Common Q & A on pilot fish


Q1. What are pilot fish?


A1. Being small marine fish belonging to the Carangidae family, they are known for their distinctive swimming behavior alongside larger marine animals, like sharks and rays.


Q2. Why do they swim with sharks?


A2. Pilot fish often swim with sharks for various reasons. One primary reason is for protection, as the presence of a larger predator can deter potential threats. They also benefit from scavenging food scraps left behind by the sharks and providing cleaning services to remove parasites and dead skin from their hosts.


Q3. How do they benefit from their association with larger marine animals?


A3. Their association with larger marine animals benefits them in several ways:

    • They gain protection from potential predators due to the intimidating presence of the larger animals.
    • They have access to food scraps and leftover prey from the larger animals’ meals.
    • They provide cleaning services by removing parasites and dead skin from their hosts, ensuring a healthier environment for both parties.


Q4. What do pilot fish eat?


A4. They have an opportunistic diet and primarily scavenge for bits of food from their associated predators, which includes leftover prey items and scraps. They also consume small fish, plankton, and other small marine organisms.


Q5. Where are pilot fish commonly found?


A5. Primarily found in warm tropical and subtropical waters worldwide, they inhabit coral reefs, offshore islands, and open ocean environments. Common regions for spotting pilot fish include the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and the western and central of the Pacific Ocean.


Q6. Are pilot fish a threatened species?


A6. Pilot fish, were not regarded as a species of particular conservation concern however, the health of coral reefs and marine ecosystems, which are under threat from several factors, including climate change, overfishing, habitat destruction, and pollution, is directly related to their well-being. Indirect benefits of conservation efforts to safeguard these ecosystems include pilot fish.


Q7. How do they reproduce?


A7. Pilot fish have relatively unknown reproductive behaviors. Like many marine species, they are believed to release eggs into the water column, where they hatch into larvae. Subsequently, these larvae develop and grow in the open ocean before settling into reef environments.


Q8. Do pilot fish have any predators?


A8. No fish is immune to preditors. They are preyed upon by larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. However, their association with larger predators like sharks provides them with some level of protection.


Q9. Can pilot fish swim independently, or do they always associate with other animals?


A9. Yes, they are capable of swimming independently, but they often choose to associate with larger marine animals due to the benefits of protection, access to food, and cleaning services that this behavior provides.


Q10. Are pilot fish related to remoras?


A10. No not really, they are not closely related to remoras, despite their similar behavior of associating with larger animals. Remoras belong to the Echeneidae family, while pilot fish belong to the Carangidae family. Both fish exhibit commensalism, where they benefit from their association with other marine species, but they are taxonomically distinct.


Q11. What is the purpose of pilot fish?


A11. The purpose of pilot fish, Naucrates ductor, in their unique ecological role, is multifaceted, and their behavior serves several important functions within marine ecosystems:

  • Protection for Both Parties:One of the primary purposes of pilot fish is to protect themselves and the larger marine animals they associate with, such as sharks and rays. Swimming closely alongside these larger predators, the presence of the pilot fish may deter potential threats. Predators may be less likely to attack when they see a larger, potentially dangerous animal nearby, which indirectly benefits the pilot fish by reducing their risk of attack.
  • Access to Food Resources: Being opportunistic feeders, their association with larger animals provides them with a consistent source of food. They scavenge for food scraps and leftover prey items that the larger animals have missed or discarded during their meals. This scavenging behavior ensures a steady supply of food for the pilot fish.
  • Cleaning Services: Pilot fish are known for their cleaning behavior. They remove parasites, dead skin, and debris from the skin and gills of their larger companions. This cleaning service benefits the larger animals by improving their overall health and hygiene. Cleaner, healthier hosts may be more effective predators, which is beneficial to the pilot fish by ensuring a long-term association.
  • Ecosystem Health: These fish contribute to the overall health of coral reef ecosystems and open ocean environments. Their cleaning behavior helps control the populations of parasites and potentially harmful organisms on the skin of larger marine animals, which helps maintain the ecological balance of these environments.
  • Scientific Research: They also serve as subjects of scientific study, helping researchers gain insights into the dynamics of commensal relationships in the marine world. Studying this fish and their interactions with larger animals provides valuable information about the behavior and ecology of these species and contribute to our understanding of marine ecosystems.


The purpose of this fish is primarily centered around survival and mutual benefit. By forming associations with larger marine animals, results in gaining protection, access to food resources, and the opportunity to provide cleaning services, which collectively enhance their chances of survival and contribute to the health and balance of the marine ecosystems they inhabit.


Q12. Are they good to eat?


A12. Pilot fish, also known as Naucrates ductor, are not typically considered a popular or common target for commercial or recreational fishing for consumption. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Size and Yield: They are relatively small, typically measuring around 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) in length. Their small size means they do not yield significant amounts of edible meat, making them less attractive as a food source compared to larger fish species.
  2. Taste and Texture: While there is limited information available on the taste and texture of this fish meat, it is not generally considered a delicacy or highly sought-after for its culinary qualities. Many other fish species are more renowned for their flavor and texture, leading people to prefer those options when it comes to seafood consumption
  3. Association with Larger Predators:  Know to associate with sharks, rays, and turtles which tend to raise concerns about the accumulation of toxins or pollutants in their flesh due to the feeding habits of their larger companions, further reducing their appeal as a food source.
  4.  Conservation Considerations:As with many marine species, there may be conservation concerns related to the harvesting of pilot fish. While they are not typically targeted for commercial fishing, their well-being is tied to the health of marine ecosystems, and overfishing or habitat destruction in these ecosystems could indirectly impact pilot fish populations.


Given these factors, this fish is not commonly consumed by humans. They are not a major part of seafood markets. People generally prefer other fish species that are larger, more abundant, and better known for their taste and culinary qualities.


Q13. What are their sizes?


A13. Pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) are relatively small fish, and their size can vary, but they typically measure between 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) in length. This size range makes them relatively small compared to many other marine fish species. Their streamlined and elongated body shape allows them to swim alongside larger marine animals, such as sharks and rays, with ease. Keep in mind that individual pilot fish within a group can vary in size, and some may be smaller or larger than the average size mentioned here.


Within the broader family of Carangidae, various other species may share similar characteristics and behaviors but are not always referred to as “pilot fish.”Some related species within the Carangidae family include:


  • Yellowtail Amberjack (Seriola lalandi): This species is often confused with pilot fish due to its similar appearance and behavior. Yellowtail amberjacks are known to swim with larger marine animals, including sharks and rays, similar to pilot fish.
  • Rainbow Runner (Elagatis bipinnulata): Rainbow runners are another species within the Carangidae family that can sometim be found swimming alongside larger marine animals. They have a slender, elongated body and a distinctive yellow stripe along their sides.
  • Blue Runner (Caranx crysos): Blue runners are a smaller species of jackfish belonging to the Carangidae family. While they are not typically associated with larger marine animals like pilot fish, they are known for their distinctive appearance and are often used as bait by anglers.
  • Bigeye Trevally (Caranx sexfasciatus): This species of trevally is also related to pilot fish but is usually found in schools rather than associating with larger marine animals.
  • It’s crucial to remember that, despite apparent physical or behavioral similarities to pilot fish, these species are different species with their own special traits and ecological roles. The most well-known species among them for its propensity to travel alongside larger marine animals is the common pilot fish, Naucrates ductor.


In conclusion,

Reading this article you will realize that these fish  are fascinating creatures, that have developed a unique and mutually beneficial relationship with larger marine animals like sharks. Their ability to adapt to these relationships, as well as their vital role in maintaining the health of coral reef ecosystems, makes them a noteworthy and intriguing component of the marine world. As our understanding of marine ecosystems evolves, further research may reveal even more about the intricacies of pilot fish behavior and their importance within the marine environment.


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