Sharp-toothed tigerfish jumps into the sky to eat birds

O'Brien et al.

The ability for a tigerfish to leap out of the water and grab low-flying birds out of the air has only been the stuff of local legend in Africa - until now. For the first time, researchers have been able to catch this practice on film and twenty instances were observed and documented. The team was led by G. C. O’Brien of North-West University in Potchfstroom, South Africa and the results were published in the Journal of Fish Biology.

African tigerfish (Hydrocynus vittatus) live in various freshwater bodies around Africa. Fully grown males can grow just over a meter in length (40 inches) with females slightly smaller. They have sixteen large razor-sharp teeth, which has led many to liken their appearance to an elongated piranha. Though their documented diet normally consists of fish and invertebrates, many people claim to have observed the tigerfish jumping out of the water to grab birds. Though the stories have been around since around World War II, there was never any real evidence that a freshwaterfish preyed upon flying birds until a recent study.

While the team from North-West University was studying tagged tigerfish in the man-made freshwater lake by the Schroda Dam in South Africa, they were able to observe 20 instances of the tigerfish exiting the water in an attempt to catch a bird. What had merely been an anecdotal legend for 70 years had now been witnessed, filmed, and scientifically described by researchers for the first time. African freshwater fish are not well-studied, which may have contributed to the delay in describing this phenomenon.

The researchers discovered that the tigerfish have two main methods of attacking barn swallows: grabbing the bird near the surface, or starting from deeper water and gaining speed to leap higher into the air. Because the birds can likely see the fish, surface attacks aren’t incredibly efficient and have a 14% success rate. When the fish jumped higher out of the water, it was successful 33% of the time. The tigerfish likely has a mechanism to compensate for the skewed image due to light refracting on the surface.

It is very exciting that this phenomenon has finally been recorded after all of this time of speculation. Of course, this opens up the tigerfish to become preyed upon by larger predatory birds in the area, though that was not observed during this study. Future study will investigate other tigerfish in the genus for a similar hunting ability, in addition to factoring in the tigerfish to the barn swallow’s conservation investigation.

The video moves fast, but they do slow it down and point on the tigerfish making a meal out of a barn swallow in flight:

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