Changing Planet

Watch: First Video of Fish Leaping Into Air to Prey on Birds

A tigerfish mugs for the camera by showing off an impressive set of teeth. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID DOUBILET, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The last thing a barn swallow probably expects as it’s flying low over a lake is to be met with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth emerging from the water. And if the bird happens to be flying over a certain lake in South Africa, that may well be the last thing it sees.

A recent study has caught what researchers say are the first scientific observations of a fish launching itself out of the water to catch birds in midair.

Daniel Cressey/Nature News

Fish preying on birds is not unusual, but it’s not a common part of many fish species’ diets either.

“There are more than 14,000 freshwater fish species in the world,” wrote Nico Smit, director of the unit for environmental sciences and management at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, in an email. “[But] of those, only about five species are known to prey on birds, so I definitely don’t think it is a widespread  behavior.”

For the most part, when fish feed on birds, it’s a meal of opportunity, Smit noted. Either the birds have accidentally fallen into the water, or waterfowl like ducks just happen to paddle over the wrong stretch of a lake or river.

But during a 15 day survey in February 2010, Smit and colleagues saw African tigerfish—which populate a storage lake for the Schroda Dam in South Africa—snatching barn swallows out of the air, they report in a study published online last month in the Journal of Fish Biology.

To accompany our story confirming barn swallows are eaten by african tigerfish, this graphic compares their length and weight.

Unlike other instances of fish eating birds, barn swallows actually seem to be a fairly regular part of a tigerfish’s summer diet when the swallows are available, Smit said. “[The fish] have been incredibly well adapted to hunt the flying birds as part of their daily routine.”

Video taken by study co-author Francois Jacobs, also of  North-West University in South Africa, is just getting major media attention now.

Beginning around twilight, tigerfish near the Schroda Dam patrol deep open water near well-vegetated areas. They exhibit a less active lifestyle during the day, which they spend in the deeper, more sheltered water, the study authors write.

But during the 2011 survey, researchers noticed that five of the tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) they had tagged exhibited increases in their midmorning activities.

Smit and colleagues did not observe any of their tagged fish leaping for barn swallows (Hirundo rustica), but they did observe other tigerfish catching the birds in midair.

The fish would either follow the birds in a surface pursuit before leaping up to try and catch them, or the tigerfish would track the swallows from deeper in the water and launch into the air to ambush them.

Smit marvels at the skill it takes for these fish to capture birds on the wing. Tigerfish have to spot a fast-flying swallow from the water, exceed the bird’s speed, compensate for refraction—or the fact that the angle of light changes when it goes from air to water—and then leap out of the water to grab the bird, he explained.

Over the course of their study, researchers saw up to 20 successful attempts on flying barn swallows by tigerfish in one day.

Photo of a barn swallow on a tree branch in Botswana.
A young barn swallow perches on a branch in Botswana. Photograph by Vincent Grafhorst, Foto Natura/Corbis

“During the 15-day survey as many as 300 [barn swallows] were preyed upon by the local [tigerfish] population, indicating that this feeding behavior is not occasional,” the study authors write.

They speculate that the scarcity of other food in the Schroda Dam lake, like other species of fish, have driven these tigerfish to attempt loftier prey.

“I think this research also illustrates that we still actually know incredibly little about the behavior of freshwater fish in Africa,” Smit said. “The fact that this amazing behavior has escaped documentation for so long surely means that a lot more needs to be discovered.”

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.
  • Kevin Woolf

    I’ve seen this before, as a child back in Alberta, with Northern Pike leaping out of the water to catch low flying swallows.

  • radelta

    whats with the country bumpkin music in the background?

  • Mr Ayetch

    Ha! “Fly” fishers eat your hearts out!

  • Alan Bleiman

    I have seen Chained Pickerel in New York State leap out of the water to seize low-flying birds

  • Gary E. Davis

    Thanks for the editing/pointer on the video. I couldn’t see what was happening with the BBC version of the slow-down. Your pointer and stop-action did it for me.

  • Gary E. Davis

    [Don’t post] I can spell ‘Berkeley’!

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    I have also seen the Pike do that in Lake Superior quite some time ago. I thought it was very rare, But apparently not!

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    By the way, Where is the video? I just have a big blank spot in the middle of the article?

  • Johgn

    What is with the bizarre video player that doesn’t work very well?

  • Baher Amin

    Interesting for such big fish to catch up with a bird and catch it!!

    well captured.

  • irtaza

    weldone shoot…..

  • Elizabeth Snodgrass

    And I just saw this video of a large catfish-type fish preying on pigeons:

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    Still cannot see the video using an iPad. Just a large blank area after the first paragraph.

  • Rayhana

    tigerfish be like ‘friendzoned again’.

  • Hhlim lim

    Peacock bass do occasionally snap low flying swifts . But not a regular occurrence .

  • Dangles

    dat ‘tigerfish’ ammi favorite dish..it ain’t no match 4 me!!

  • J Boucher

    Agreed about Northern Pikes, I’ve seen them catch birds as well. I’m guessing they must be on the list of the five freshwater species that are confirmed bird hunters.

  • Barbara Smith

    Simply amazing!

  • Cuago

    The swallow has been swallowed.

  • Sarfraz Ishaq

    If you’re an iphone user like me you will probably just see a blank space where the video is meant to be…as we don’t have flash player 🙁 ….I’ll watch it later on my PC

  • Chloe

    Sign me off of that ship. Flying attack fish, no thanks… I do feel sorry for those cute lil birds but they are part of a food chain there, not me tho Africa 🙂

  • Kaddu Emmanuel

    I wish there exist a 40 pound king fisher, it would have been a good battle. KING FISHER BIRD Vs AFRICAN TIGER FISH.

  • Alan

    Ducklings are on the menu for several kinds of fishes in North America.

  • laeeq ahmed

    i need good plas and good national geographic movie

  • Denis
  • Ayumi

    Ooh! I want one!

  • feridun

    wowww

  • H-D. EUSTACHE

    The bird coming in the front at right distract you when you are watching the video. The real action is taking place at left side.
    I hide the bird at the left with my hand so I can see better the action.

  • Brendan

    Not too different than the largemouth bass I see in the summer months jumping out of the water catching dragonflys

  • Horacio Baltazar Bugeaua

    Hello !

    I am Baltazar Bugeau, biologist student, photographer3D, and fisherman . (Argentino, 32 years old)
    I took 5 years studying the Salminus brasiliensis (Golden Dorado) a beatifull fish!

    I stay in KwaZulu (Durban) in november, for a month

    I want make a Tiger fishing expedition

    I’m looking for biologist Gordon Craig O¨brien, if you have the contact I will thank

    best regards

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