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The hard-knock life of a marine baby fish

Most fish in the world’s oceans reproduce by releasing their reproductive cells (oocytes and sperm) into the marine environment, where the two meet and fertilization occurs. Fish like sardines, groupers, tuna and cobias use this strategy to spawn millions of eggs. About 24 hours after (more or less, depending on species) the end of embryonic development, baby fish are hatched, called larvae.

Eggs and larvae of fish

For a tiny larva to survive in the marine environment, a large amount of quality food is necessary (such as zooplankton, see "For plankton, size matters"). Babies need to be well fed to guarantee fitness and growth until they reach adulthood. In the ocean, there are many animals that feed on small organisms, and eggs and fish larvae have high nutritional value. Fish and other marine animals, such as jellyfish, consume millions of eggs and larvae each season, as just another step in the marine food chain.

Jellyfish Liriope tetraphylla capturing a cobia larva (Rachycentron canadum) 5 mm in size.

It was once believed this little fish lived floating in the seawater for days or even weeks until its eyes, mouth and fins were completely developed. In my doctoral project, I studied the behavior of these small larvae during the first days of life, and I observed that, in addition to floating, they have an amazing swimming ability. Larvae are able to achieve extremely high speeds while swimming to capture food, up to 40 times their body size per second. Note: the world’s fastest man swims only 1.5 times his body size per second!

In general, the swimming of marine organisms is related to feeding, breeding, and the escape from predators. To get food, fish larvae need to coordinate their bodies to move their fins, interpret prey movement, open their mouths, and then capture the prey. To get away from predators, they need to bend their bodies and change swimming direction to successfully escape. These behavioral patterns were recorded for grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) and cobia (Rachycentron canadum) larvae, in my studies. To perform this research we (Laboratory of Plankton Systems team and me, set up an optical system with a similar configuration to a microscope but in a horizontal position, to study organisms 2-5 millimeters in size in a small aquarium. We filmed with a video camera that captures a high rate of frames per second (also known as "high speed camera"). See more at

Even with all this skill, survival rate of individuals is only 1% from egg to adulthood. This high mortality rate is due to predation and/or starvation. A small larva faces many challenges, but if successful, one day it will become a mature adult fish and produce a new generation of eggs and larvae, maintaining a natural balance between species and the marine ecosystem.

In the marine environment there are about 16,000 species of fish, many of which we know little about the larval behavior of. An example similar to the research done in my doctoral work is the study conducted on adult fish behavior through, which can be seen in documentaries presented by the National Geographic Channel ( ). The researchers offered different prey and filmed the swimming and feeding behavior of different species of marine fish. For the curious: access the page and watch the video "Blink of an Eye."

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FUIMAN, L. A. Special considerations of fish eggs and larvae. In: Fuiman, L. A.; Werner, R. G. (eds). Fishery Science: The unique contributions of early life stages. Blackwell Science. p. 1- 32, 2002.

GOÇALO, C.G.; AQUINO, N. A. de; KERBER, C. E.; NAGATA, R. M.; LOPES, R. M. Swimming behavior of cobia larvae (Rachycentron canadum) facing prey and predator. 38th Annual Larval Fish Conference, Quebéc, Canadá. 2014

HOUDE, E. D. Emerging from Hjort’s shadow. J. Northwest Atl. Fish. Sci., v. 41, p. 53-70, 2008.

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