Barracuda

 

Common Name:
Barracuda
Scientific Name:
Sphyraena
Type:
Fish
Diet:
Carnivore
Average Life Span:
Can exceed 14 years in larger species.
Size:
18 inches to more than 6 feet long
IUCN Red List Status:
Least concern

What is a barracuda?

Barracuda have a formidable reputation as ruthless predators—even depicted in Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo as the merciless villain that kills Nemo’s mother. Widely distributed around the world, these ferocious fish are commonly found in tropical regions with warm water and plenty of food. They prefer shallower, coastal waters of less than 330 feet deep—typically close to coral reefs, shorelines, and continental shelves.

There are more than 20 species, but the most renowned is the great barracuda. Capable of incredible bursts of speed, and with a menacing mouth full of needle-like teeth, these fish are perfectly evolved for hunting. They can opportunistically snap up tiny prey or hunt fish almost as big as themselves, deftly slicing them in two if they’re too large to swallow in one gulp.

Appearance

While barracuda species vary slightly in appearance, one look at these fearsome fish tells you they are efficient predators. Their slender, muscular, cylindrical bodies resemble a torpedo and are built for speed. Peeking out from a barracuda’s protruding lower jaw, its mouth is packed with sharp, dagger-like teeth—some of which face backwards to help the animal keep its grip on slippery, writhing prey.

The northern barracuda (Sphyraena borealis) doesn’t grow larger than 18 inches long while the great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) can reach lengths of more than six feet. The smaller species live in groups called shoals and hunt together while larger barracuda are solitary.

These fish have shiny silver sides and countershading that help them camouflage into the water around them. They are usually gray, white, or blue on top—making them blend into the blue water for anything looking down on them—with a white belly that makes them harder to see from below. Each barracuda has a unique pattern of body markings which can be used by scientists to monitor individuals.

Diet and behavior

Barracuda prey on many other fish—big and small. While they don’t waste energy on proactively hunting small prey, any small fish that dares to come too close risks being snatched up and swallowed whole.

Great barracuda can eat fish almost as big as themselves. Anything too large to be eaten in one go will be held in its powerful jaws while it bites repeatedly in quick succession, shaking its head to slice its prey in half with its razor-sharp teeth. Known as ram-biting, this energy-efficient hunting strategy allows the animals to target a wider range of prey.

Barracuda are aggressive ambush predators. Their secret weapon is their incredible ability to lie in wait and surprise their prey. The camouflage of their countershading helps them blend into their surroundings while they use their excellent vision to search for passing prey. Once spotted, the high-speed attack can be over before the victim even realizes it’s in danger. Barracuda can accelerate from zero to 36 miles per hour in seconds, allowing them to quickly snap up their meal before it has time to escape.

Threats to survival

These impressive predators are not at the top of the food chain. Adult barracuda can be preyed upon by larger species such as sharks, dolphins, orca, and groupers.

Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature has listed most barracuda as species of least concern, there are reports of populations declining in some regions, such as the Caribbean. As many species are considered game fish, they are hunted by humans for sport as well as food.

However, consuming large species of barracuda can be poisonous to humans due to a process called bioaccumulation. This occurs when animals at the bottom of the food chain consume toxic chemicals, which then become more concentrated as other predators eat that animal and the toxins it has absorbed.

With sea temperatures rising around the world, the barracuda’s natural range has expanded over time. How this could disrupt the wider ecosystem is yet unclear. It could leave fish species that haven’t encountered these efficient hunters more susceptible to predation, while also making it difficult for other predators to find enough food.

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