Pilot fish

Pilot fish
Pilot Fish
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Actinopterygii
Order: Perciformes
Family: Carangidae
Genus: Naucrates
Rafinesque, 1810
Species: N. ductor
Binomial name
Naucrates ductor
(Linnaeus, 1758)

The pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) is a carnivorous commensal fish in the family Carangidae.[1] It is widely distributed and lives in warm or tropical open seas.



The pilot fish congregates around sharks, rays, and sea turtles, where it eats ectoparasites on, and leftovers around the host species;[2] younger pilot fish are usually associated with jellyfish and drifting seaweeds.[3] They are also known to follow ships, sometimes for long distances; one was found in County Cork, Ireland,[4] and many pilot fish have been sighted on the shores of England.[5][6] Their fondness for ships led the ancients to believe that they would navigate a ship to its desired course.[7]

The pilot fish is of a dark blue to blackish-silver colour, with the belly being lighter in colour.[8][9][10] The pilot fish is also known to have a temporary variation of colour when excited; its dark-coloured bars disappear, and its body turns a silvery-white colour, with three broad blue patches on its back.[11] It is easily recognisable by its distinctive traverse bands,[12] which are of a much darker colour than the rest of the body, and number between five and seven.[9] The pilot fish can grow up to 60–70 cm in length.[13]

The pilot fish is harmless to human beings[14] and is said to be good eating;[15][16] however, the fish is difficult to land because of its erratic behaviour when caught.[17]

Pilot fish swimming with an oceanic whitetip shark

While pilot fish can be seen with all manner of sharks, they are said to prefer accompanying the oceanic whitetip, Carcharhinus longimanus.[18] 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.[19] It was often said by sailors that sharks and pilot fish share something like a "close companionship";[20] there were even tales of this fish following ships which had captured "their" shark for up to six weeks[21] and showing signs of distress in its absence.[22][23]

Whatever the veracity of such reports, it is extremely rare that a shark will feed on a pilot fish,[24] and smaller pilot fish are frequently observed swimming into sharks' mouths to clean away fragments of food from between their teeth. As Herman Melville put it,[25]

They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril 's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates![26]

These observations have led to the pilot fish's distinctive markings being copied for decals supplied as shark protection for surfboards.[27]

Etymology and metaphors

There are a few possible, conflicting etymologies for the term "pilot fish". One is that sea-faring 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]

In this latter sense, 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] In a vaguely similar vein, Ernest Hemingway uses the term "pilot fish" in his memoirs (A Moveable Feast) to refer to the scouts that rich people send out to check on artists to see if they are the next big thing. Pilot fish are also used as a metaphor or simile for scavengers or looters which accompany a greater threat; in this sense, the term "pilot fish" was applied to a group of extraterrestrial robots that heralded the imminent appearance of a much greater threat (the "shark") in The Christmas Invasion, the 2005 Christmas Special of the BBC television show Doctor Who.


  1. ^ Greenberg, Idaz (1986). Guide to Corals & Fishes of Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Seahawk Press. pp. 2–3. ISBN 0-913008-08-7. 
  2. ^ McEachran, John D.; Fechhelm, Janice D. (1998). Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico: Myxiniformes to Gasterosteiformes. University of Texas Press. p. 287. ISBN 0292706340. 
  3. ^ Eschmeyer, William N.; Herald, Earl Stannard (1999). A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes. Houghton Mifflin Books. p. 208. ISBN 0395268737. 
  4. ^ Thompson, William (1856). The Natural History of Ireland. Reeve, Benham and Reeve. p. 95. ISBN 0900761458. 
  5. ^ Couch, Jonathan (1863). A History of the Fishes of the British Islands. Groombridge & Sons. p. 109. 
  6. ^ 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[.]" 
  7. ^ 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." 
  8. ^ Goldsmith, Oliver (1810). A History of the Earth and Animated Nature. p. 159. 
  9. ^ a b Eschmeyer & Herald 1999, p. 208.
  10. ^ Randall, John; Allen, Gerald; Steen, Roger (1997). Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. University of Hawaii Press. p. 164. ISBN 0824818954. 
  11. ^ Eschmeyer & Herald, p. 208.
  12. ^ Goldsmith 1810, p. 159.
  13. ^ 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 0906301629. 
    • 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: A Series of Treatises on the Principles of Science, with their Application to Practical Pursuits. Houlston & Stoneman. p. 50. ISBN 1142002373. .
  14. ^ "Naucrates ductor". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. http://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=168742. Retrieved June 24, 2005. 
  15. ^ Orr 1865, p. 50. "Its flesh is said to be very good."
  16. ^ 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."
  17. ^ "The Sargasso Sea". The Geographical Journal 66 (5): 440. November 1925. "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." 
  18. ^ Stafford-Deitsch, Jeremy (2000). Sharks of Florida, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Trident Press. p. 32. ISBN 1900724456. 
  19. ^ Webster, Stephen (2003). Thinking about Biology. Cambridge University Press. p. 24. ISBN 0521590590. 
  20. ^ Couch 1863, p. 110–111.
  21. ^ 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. 
  22. ^ Schomburgk, Robert Hermann (1848). History of Barbados: Comprising a Geographical and Statistical Description of the Island. p. 669. ISBN 0714619485. 
  23. ^ Gudger, E. W. (March 1929). "Some Instances of Supposed Sympathy Among Fishes". The Scientific Monthly 28 (3): 267. 
  24. ^ "The Deep-Sea Fishes Collected by the Talisman". Science 23 (68): 623–8. May 23, 1884. 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." 
  25. ^ Turco, Lewis (1986). Visions and Revisions of American Poetry. University of Arkansas Press. p. 65. ISBN 0938626507. "'The Maldive Shark' is as close to perfection as Melville ever came in his verse poetry." 
  26. ^ The Maldive Shark, in Melville, Herman (1888). John Marr and Other Sailors. The De Vinne Press. p. 90. ISBN 0841460299. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/libraryscience/18/. 
  27. ^ Hurley, Timothy (2003-11-06). "Company sold out of anti-shark device". The Honolulu Advertiser. http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2003/Nov/06/ln/ln03a.html. Retrieved 2007-07-26. "Sharkcamo sells rash guards and decals for surfboards and bodyboards that have zebralike stripes that mimic the pattern of certain fish—poisonous fish, cleaner fish, pilot fish and remoras—that sharks do not choose as prey."  See also the Shark Camo website.
  28. ^ "Pilot Fish". The London Encyclopædia, or, Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature, and Practical Mechanics. 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. p. 400. ISBN 0876360150. "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. II. F. D. Richards. p. 188. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Pilot fish — Pilot Pi lot, n. [F. pilote, prob. from D. peillood plummet, sounding lead; peilen, pegelen, to sound, measure (fr. D. & G. peil, pegel, a sort of measure, water mark) + lood lead, akin to E. lead. The pilot, then, is the lead man, i. e., he who… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • pilot fish — n. a narrow, spiny finned jackfish (Naucrates ductor) with a widely forked tail, often seen swimming near sharks: often written pilotfish [pī′lət fish΄] n. pl. PILOTFISH or pilotfishes (see FISH) * * * Widely distributed species (Naucrates ductor …   Universalium

  • pilot fish — n. a narrow, spiny finned jackfish (Naucrates ductor) with a widely forked tail, often seen swimming near sharks: often written pilotfish [pī′lət fish΄] n. pl. PILOTFISH or pilotfishes (see FISH) …   English World dictionary

  • pilot fish — noun 1. : a pelagic carangid fish (Naucrates ductor) that often swims in company with a shark 2. : banded rudderfish 3. : menominee whitefish * * * pilot fish noun A carangoid fish that accompanies ships and sharks …   Useful english dictionary

  • pilot fish — /ˈpaɪlət fɪʃ/ (say puyluht fish) noun (plural pilot fish or pilot fishes) any of various species of carangoid marine fishes which accompany and were once thought to act as guides to sharks, as Naucrates angeli of Australian and New Zealand waters …  

  • pilot fish — locmanas statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas taksono rangas rūšis atitikmenys: lot. Naucrates ductor angl. lootsman; pilot fish; rudderfish; shark pilot rus. восточный лоцман; лоцман; рыба лоцман ryšiai: platesnis terminas – locmanai …   Žuvų pavadinimų žodynas

  • pilot fish — Carangidae Carangidae n. 1. large family of narrow bodied marine food fishes allied to the mackerels, with widely forked tails; chiefly of warm seas; it includes the {caranx}, {American bluefish}, and the {pilot fish}. Syn: family Carangidae.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • pilot fish —  Junior executives who follow close behind senior management.  See also brown noser, ass kisser.  ► “Our nations’ bulging inventory of business cliches is spun out by pundits, picked up by senior executives, and regurgitated by pilot fish… …   American business jargon

  • pilot fish — noun Date: 1634 a pelagic carangid fish (Naucrates ductor) that has dark stripes and often swims in company with a shark …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • pilot fish — noun A marine fish, Naucrates ductor, that often follows large vessels and sharks …   Wiktionary

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