Chapter 9: Bony Fish

Mr. Van Arsdale and son holding a silver salmon.


The bony fish comprise the largest group of the vertebrates in Phylum Chordata, with over 20,000 species worldwide. They are called bony fish because their bony skeletons are calcified, making them much harder than the cartilage bones of the Chondrichthyes. The bony fishes have evolved a great diversity of sizes and shapes all based on a basic body form with protrusible (extendable) jaws, spiny rayed fins, and a swim bladder to control buoyancy. This form has been modified in different fish allowing some to become highly maneuverable, others exceptionally fast, and some highly specialized in their feeding behavior.

A Malabar grouper, image from Wikipedia

Many fishes have complex physiologies, sophisticated organ systems, and unique behaviors that have made them highly successful in filling aquatic and marine niches.


One of the most defining features of fish is their jaws. In the history of life on Earth, the evolution of jaws gave fish tremendous advantages and has allowed them to dominate oceanic ecosystems. The size and shape of a fish’s jaws, along with the size and shape of its teeth dictate what a fish eats. Some fish have large jaws with sharp teeth like this Goliath Grouper Other fish, like parrot fish have highly specialized teeth and jaws for crunching on coral. Moray eels have a two sets of jaws allowing them to both bite its prey and simultaneously pull it back into their throat.

A red mullet, image from Wikimedia Commons


In fishes, ovoparity; laying under-developed eggs with external fertilization, is the most common form of reproduction. Salt water is an ideal environment for keeping eggs uniform in temperature and moist. Some species, like the brown surgeonfish randomly disperse their eggs to the currents, others like the three-spined stickleback will build nests, and a few like several species of African ciclids may brood their eggs in their mouth. Each strategy has its advantages and disadvantages. For fish that release their eggs into the current, no parental care is involved. When eggs settle out of the plankton they may be in totally new environments, which prevent them from competing for precious resources with their parents. The greatest disadvantage to giving birth to immature and vulnerable eggs is that a lot of them get eaten. Even in immature larval stages, as they first set out to feed on their own, fish are highly vulnerable to predation. The survival of individual eggs from broadcast spawners is very low, so millions of eggs must be produced in order for the parent to successfully produce offspring. There are other strategies. Some fish invest more energy in fewer eggs. A few fish, like the male leafy sea dragon to the left, actually carry their eggs . Male gobies guard the eggs in a nest until they are born. Clink on the link to watch the eggs of developing Atlantic Halibut.

Some fish (particularly deep sea fish) are capable of producing their own light called bioluminescence. However, researchers have recently learned that lots of fish are capable of absorbing blue light (highly available in the upper ocean) and reflecting back green or red light in a process called Fluorescence. They do this possibly to attract mates. Click on the link for a video all about it.

Spotted Handfish


The spotted hand fish, seen to the left, is very unusual. Its rays create hand-like fins that allow it to walk along the bottom. For most fish, their fins are adapted for swimming not walking. Most fish use their back fin called a caudal fin for propulsion. Stiffer, vertically elongated caudal fins like those of a bluefin tuna are designed for speed. Rounder softer caudal fins like those of a butterfly fish are better for close-cornering and maneuvering. Not all fish use their caudal fins for propulsion. The ocean sun fish (Mola mola) has no real caudal fin but instead will use exaggerated dorsal and anal fins like oars for swimming. Pectoral fins, pelvic fins, and the dorsal fin help a fish maintain balance and give fish the maneuverability they need.

Body shape also had a great impact on fish movement. Just like in boats and submarines, a longer more fusiform shape like that of a barracuda makes a fish faster. A flatter, rounder shape like that of a trigger fish, may make give a fish an advantage when maneuvering in close quarters. The attenuated shape of an eel allows it to move effortlessly in the cracks and crevices of its reef home.

Fish fins, Image from PBS

Avoiding Predators

The main way that fish avoid potential predators is to place themselves in a school. Schooling has a lot of advantages besides predator avoidance, but in the oceanic world of eat or be eaten schooling reduces the chance that any one individual fish will be eaten by a predator. Predators have to pick out individual fish to catch, and the large amounts of movement in a school will often confuse a predator and increase the odds of survival for individuals. Also, predators that are intensely feeding may become satiated (full) while feeding on fish in a school, leaving many fish to escape. Fish use their highly sensitive lateral lines (and to some extent visual cues) to respond to each other’s movement, allowing schools to move in a highly coordinated fashion.

Use the bony-fish slide deck (Links to an external site.), and the reading above to help you answer these questions.

Questions for Research

  1. Fish are extremely diverse.  Do some research and find the strangest fish you can (feel free to use one from the reading or slide deck.  Describe the fish for me here.
  2. Body Form –  Body form in fishes can be highly varied with the form of a fishes body matching its functional needs.  Use the bony fish slide deck or  A quick course on Ichthyology (Links to an external site.) to help you complete the chart below.
    Body Form Example Function
    torpedo  (Links to an external site.) acceleration
    one sided Pacific halibut (Links to an external site.)
    pan shaped (Links to an external site.) maneuverability
    attenuated Wolf Eel (Links to an external site.)
    unusual (Links to an external site.)  Camouflage
  3. Jaws – select any fish and describe how the shape of its jaws are related to its specific style of feeding or choice of food.  If you have no idea of which fish to do, let me suggest the Two Bite Moray. (Links to an external site.)
  4. Fin Shape – All fish have fins, with most fish having variations of the same basic types.  Use Wikipedia’s Fish Anatomy Page (Links to an external site.) to complete the chart below.
    Caudal fin shape Example Function
    blue shark (Links to an external site.)  lift
    homocercal lunate sailfish (Links to an external site.)
    homocercal truncate pink salmon (Links to an external site.)
    banded butterfly fish (Links to an external site.) maneuverability
    stunted, small, or unusual leafy sea dragon (Links to an external site.
  5. The billfish are sometimes called “super fish.”  How do billfish like the sailfish use their bills for feeding (Links to an external site.).  Describe at least two methods.
  6. Schooling – Explain three advantages (avoiding predators can only be one) of schooling (Links to an external site.).
  7. Coloration- Dark on top, light on bottom, its called counter coloration and its very common in fish.  In most marine environments it makes a fish hard to see from above (looking into the dark) and hard to see from below (looking into the light above.)  Look at a blue marlin (Links to an external site.) to see an example of this.  Make a sketch or describe in a detailed description of the coloration pattern for the tuna.  Next click on the link for coral reef fishes (Links to an external site.).  Many coral reef fishes are highly colorful with distinctive eye spots or bands of contrasting color.  Explain the possible advantages of these outlandish color patterns.
  8. Reproduction – It will help you to read above before you begin this question.  Contrast the reproductive styles of the California grunion (Links to an external site.) with the blue marlin (Links to an external site.)  and the leafy sea dragon (Links to an external site.).
  9. Together in class we will listen to a description by Richard Nelson of the connections between spawning salmon and forests (Links to an external site.).  Describe how salmon (in a very real sense) build forests.
  10. Go check out some images of fish scales under the microscope (Links to an external site.). Describe two things you notice or learn about the scales?