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Pilot fish

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Pilot fish
Near Mangalore, India
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Carangiformes
Family: Carangidae
Subfamily: Naucratinae
Genus: Naucrates
Rafinesque, 1810
N. ductor
Binomial name
Naucrates ductor
  • Gasterosteus ductor Linnaeus, 1758
  • Hemitripteronotus quinquemaculatus Lacepède, 1801
  • Naucrates fanfarus Rafinesque, 1810
  • Naucrates indicus Lesson, 1831
  • Naucrates noveboracensis Cuvier, 1832
  • Nauclerus compressus Valenciennes, 1833
  • Seriola dussumieri Valenciennes, 1833
  • Seriola succincta Valenciennes, 1833
  • Nauclerus abreviatus Valenciennes, 1833
  • Nauclerus brachycentrus Valenciennes, 1833
  • Nauclerus triacanthus Valenciennes, 1833
  • Nauclerus annularis Valenciennes, 1833
  • Nauclerus leucurus Valenciennes, 1833
  • Naucrates cyanophrys Swainson, 1839
  • Naucrates serratus Swainson, 1839
  • Thynnus pompilus Gronow, 1854
  • Naucrates polysarcus Fowler, 1905
  • Naucrates angeli Whitley, 1931

The pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) is a carnivorous fish of the trevally, or jackfish family, Carangidae.[3] It is widely distributed and lives in warm or tropical open seas.


Pilot fish swimming with an oceanic whitetip shark

The pilot fish congregates around sharks, rays, and sea turtles, where it eats ectoparasites on, and leftovers around, the host species;[4] younger pilot fish are usually associated with jellyfish and drifting seaweeds.[5] They are also known to follow ships, sometimes for long distances; one was found in County Cork, Ireland,[6] and many pilot fish have been sighted on the shores of England.[7][8] Their fondness for ships led the ancients[clarification needed] to believe that they would navigate a ship to its desired course.[9]

The pilot fish's colour is between dark blue and blackish-silver, with the belly being lighter in colour.[10][11][12] The pilot fish is also known to have a temporary variation of colour when excited; its dark-coloured bars disappear, and its body turns silvery-white, with three broad blue patches on its back.[13] It can be recognised by its five to seven distinctive traverse bands,[14] which are of a much darker colour than the rest of the body.[11] The pilot fish can grow up to 60–70 cm in length.[15]

The pilot fish is edible[16][17] and is said to taste good,[18][19] but it is rarely available due to its erratic behaviour when caught.[20]

While pilot fish can be seen with all manner of sharks, they prefer accompanying the oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus.[21] The pilot fish's relationship with sharks is a mutualist one; the pilot fish gains protection from predators, while the shark gains freedom from parasites.[22] It was often said by sailors that sharks and pilot fish share something like a "close companionship";[23] there were even tales of this fish following ships which had captured "their" shark for up to six weeks[24] and showing signs of distress in its absence.[25][26]

It is rare that a shark will feed on a pilot fish,[27] and smaller pilot fish are frequently observed swimming into sharks' mouths to clean away fragments of food from between their teeth.

Etymology and metaphors[edit]

There are a few possible, conflicting etymologies for the term "pilot fish". One is that seafaring people believed that pilot fish, which would appear around the bow of their ships when they were close to land, were leading (or piloting) them back to port.[28] An alternative etymology is that pilot fish were once, erroneously,[29] thought to be piloting sharks to food,[30][31] or even (as legends have it) piloting ships, whales and swimmers to safety.[32]

The pilot fish is sometimes used as a metaphor or simile; "they are like the pilot fish to the shark, serving to lead him to his victim".[33] Pilot fish are also used as a metaphor or simile for scavengers or looters which accompany a greater threat.

In myth[edit]

In Greek mythology a sailor called Pompilus helped the nymph Ocyrhoe when she was fleeing away from the god Apollo. The sailor moved the nymph from Miletus to Samos and the god punished him by making him a pilot fish.[34]

Pancrates of Arcadia stated that it was a sacred fish in honour to Poseidon and that it was forbidden to eat it: actually a fisherman called Epopeus ate it and paid for his audacity with his life.[35]


  1. ^ Smith-Vaniz, W.F.; Brown, J.; Pina Amargos, F.; Williams, J.T. & Curtis, M. (2017) [errata version of 2015 assessment]. "Naucrates ductor". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015: e.T190452A115322218. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-4.RLTS.T190452A16643992.en.
  2. ^ Froese, Rainer; Pauly, Daniel (eds.) (2019). "Naucrates ductor" in FishBase. August 2019 version.
  3. ^ Greenberg, Idaz (1986). Guide to Corals & Fishes of Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Seahawk Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0-913008-08-7.
  4. ^ McEachran, John D.; Fechhelm, Janice D. (1998). Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico: Myxiniformes to Gasterosteiformes. University of Texas Press. p. 287. ISBN 0-292-70634-0.
  5. ^ Eschmeyer, William N.; Herald, Earl Stannard (1999). A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes. Houghton Mifflin Books. p. 208. ISBN 0-395-26873-7.
  6. ^ Thompson, William (1856). The Natural History of Ireland. Reeve, Benham and Reeve. p. 95. ISBN 0-900761-45-8.
  7. ^ Couch, Jonathan (1863). A History of the Fishes of the British Islands. Groombridge & Sons. p. 109.
  8. ^ Yarrell, William (1841). A History of British Fishes (2nd. ed.). John van Voorst. p. 170. The pilot-fish has been so often seen, and occasionally taken on our southern coast, as to be entitled to a place among British Fishes[.]
  9. ^ Patterson, Robert (1849). First Steps to Zoology. Simms and McIntyre. p. 149. [The pilot fish is] supposed by the ancients to have pointed out to navigators their desired course, and borne them company during their voyage.
  10. ^ Goldsmith, Oliver (1810). A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. p. 159.
  11. ^ a b Eschmeyer & Herald 1999, p. 208.
  12. ^ Randall, John; Allen, Gerald; Steen, Roger (1997). Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press. p. 164. ISBN 0-8248-1895-4.
  13. ^ Eschmeyer & Herald, p. 208.
  14. ^ Goldsmith 1810, p. 159.
  15. ^ Various sources give different figures:
    • Eschmayer & Herald 1999, p. 208, claims a maximum of 61 cm, averaging less than 30cm in the studied area (the Pacific).
    • Randall, Allen & Steen 1997, p. 164, gives a maximum figure of 70 cm, as does FishBase.
    • An average size of 60cm is given by Jennings, Gerald (1997). The Sea and Freshwater Fishes of Australia and New Guinea. Calypso Publications. p. 163. ISBN 0-906301-62-9.
    • An older source gives a figure of "about a foot". See the third volume of Orr, William Somerville (1865). Orr's Circle of the Sciences. Houlston & Stoneman. p. 50. ISBN 1-142-00237-3..
  16. ^ Goadby, Peter (1963). Sharks and Other Marine Predators. Melbourne: Jacaranda Press. p. 22.
  17. ^ "Naucrates ductor". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved June 24, 2005.
  18. ^ Orr 1865, p. 50. "Its flesh is said to be very good."
  19. ^ Yarrell 1841, p. 172. "After this the two [pilot] fish separated; but they were both taken the same evening, and, when dressed the next day, were found to be excellent eating."
  20. ^ Dixon, C. C. (November 1925). "The Sargasso Sea". The Geographical Journal. 66 (5): 440. doi:10.2307/1782665. JSTOR 1782665. They take the hook readily, but go quite insane when hooked, and are difficult to land in spite of their size, 6 to 16 inches.
  21. ^ Stafford-Deitsch, Jeremy (2000). Sharks of Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Trident Press. p. 32. ISBN 1-900724-45-6.
  22. ^ Webster, Stephen (2003). Thinking about Biology. Cambridge University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0-521-59059-0.
  23. ^ Couch 1863, p. 110–111.
  24. ^ Murray, Hugh; Wilson, James; Greville, R. K.; Jameson, Robert; Ainslie, Whitelaw; Rhind, William; Wallace, Prof.; Dalrymble, Clarence (1832). Historical and Descriptive Account of British India, from the Most Remote Period to the Present Time. J. & J. Harper. p. 337.
  25. ^ Schomburgk, Robert Hermann (1848). History of Barbados: Comprising a Geographical and Statistical Description of the Island. Psychology Press. p. 669. ISBN 0-7146-1948-5.
  26. ^ Gudger, E. W. (March 1929). "Some Instances of Supposed Sympathy Among Fishes". The Scientific Monthly. 28 (3): 267. Bibcode:1929SciMo..28..266G.
  27. ^ Filhol, H. (May 23, 1884). "The Deep-Sea Fishes Collected by the Talisman". Science. 3 (68): 623–8. Bibcode:1884Sci.....3..623.. doi:10.1126/science.ns-3.68.623. PMID 17844329. It seems that Naucrates acts as a guide for the sharks, and that the latter, in recognition of its services, never pursue it.
  28. ^ "Pilot Fish". The London Encyclopædia, or, Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature, and Practical Mechanics. Vol. XVII. 1839. p. 396. Seafaring people observe that this fish frequently accompanies their vessels; and, as they see it generally towards the fore part of the ship, they imagined that it was guiding and tracing out the course of the vessel, and hence it received the name of pilot-fish.
  29. ^ Stafford-Deitsch 2000, p. 32. "The myth that pilotfishes guide their host to prey is erroneously derived from the fact that pilotfishes [...] often ride the pressure wave immediately in front of the snout of their host."
  30. ^ Andrews, Roy Chapman (1940). This Amazing Planet. G.P. Putnam's Sons. p. 88.
  31. ^ Stedman, John Gabriel (1813). Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana on the Wild Coast of South America from the Years 1772–1777. University of Massachusetts Press. p. 400. ISBN 0-87636-015-0. The pilot-fish ought here also to be noticed: this [...] is said not only to feed upon the gills of the shark, but to direct it to its prey, from which singularity originates its name.
  32. ^ Eschmeyer & Herald 2002, p. 209. "The name Pilotfish comes from legendary tales of this species leading lost swimmers, ships, or whales to safety."
  33. ^ Watt, G. D. (1855). Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young. Vol. II. F. D. Richards. p. 188.
  34. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosofistae 283e and Claudius Aelianus, De natura animalium 15.23.
  35. ^ Athenaeus, Deipnosofistae 284a.

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