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Science on Purpose: Flying back up the food chain

In an African lake in Mapungubwe National Park, the carnivorous African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus, for those who speak Latin) has recently been documented capturing birds mid-flight.

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By Taylor Breckles (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: January 15, 2014

Fish have figured out how to fly, which is bad news for the birds.

In an African lake in Mapungubwe National Park, the carnivorous African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus, for those who speak Latin) has recently been documented capturing birds mid-flight.

But how can fish capture birds? Isn’t the circle of life supposed to work the opposite way? These doubts have filled the minds of scientists and fish enthusiasts since the ‘40s when rumours of the flying fish started.

Nico Smit, the director of the Unit of Environmental Sciences and Management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, admits in the Journal of Fish Biology that his team of researchers was “never really convinced by the anecdotal reports.”

Yet despite all the doubt surrounding this fish tale, barn swallows have been disappearing — sometimes as many as 20 successful strikes in one day — from the air. Attacks vary from the tigerfish swimming near the water’s surface to hunting from a lower depth, then leaping up to three feet into the air: a remarkable feat for a creature without knees.

When Smit first witnessed a swallow vanishing into the water, he says he wasn’t prepared to believe it.

“The whole action of jumping and catching the swallow in flight happens so incredibly quickly that after we first saw it, it took all of us a while to really fully comprehend what we had just seen,” he says. “The first reaction was one of pure joy, because we realized that we were spectators to something really incredible and unique.”

This research could reveal more fish populations with a similar diet, Smit explains.

“Our findings will really focus the attention on the importance of basic freshwater research, and specifically fish behaviour,” he says.

It isn’t the first time in evolutionary history fish have left their watery homes. Bob Strauss confirms in Tetrapods — The Fish Out of Water that fish used to take to land.

“The fact is that, 400 to 350 million years ago, various prehistoric fish crawled out of the water at various times.”

For now, and perhaps as long as any of us will be alive to see, only the tigerfish has started to look skyward for food.

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