fish (in zoology)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

fish (in zoology)

fish, limbless aquatic vertebrate animal with fins and internal gills. Traditionally the living fish have been divided into three class: the primitive jawless fishes, or Agnatha; the cartilaginous (sharklike) fishes, or Chondrichthyes; and the bony fishes, or Osteichthyes. These groups, although quite different from one another anatomically, have certain common features related to their common evolutionary origins or to their aquatic way of life. Fish were the earliest vertebrates and presumably evolved from a group of aquatic lower chordates (see Chordata); the terrestrial vertebrates evolved from fishes. More recent cladistic taxonomies, relying on evolutionary relationships determined through DNA studies, group the living fish into five classes, dividing the jawless fishes into Myxini (hagfish) and Petromyzontida (lampreys) and the bony fishes into Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish) and Sacropterygii (lobe-finned fish).

There are some 28,000 living species of fish, the vast majority of which are bony fishes. They range in size from the .31-in. (7.9-mm) Paedocypris that lives in tropical swamps in Sumatra to the 45-ft (14-m) whale shark. Many are brightly colored, and many have shapes and patterns that serve as camouflage. They are found in all marine, fresh, and brackish waters throughout the world and at all depths. Members of different species of fish tolerate water temperatures ranging from freezing to over 100°F (38°C). Most are confined either to saltwater or to freshwater, but some are physiologically adapted to moving from one to the other. A number of fishes that are born in freshwater spend their adult lives in the ocean, returning to their birthplace to spawn; the reverse of this migration occurs in some fishes born in the ocean. Many fishes stay in tightly organized groups, called schools; others are solitary and congregate only for feeding and spawning. Fish may be carnivorous, herbivorous, or omnivorous. Some fish are scavengers on lake or ocean bottoms. Fish are a major source of human food as well as of oil, fertilizer, and feed for domestic animals (see fishing).

A number of aquatic invertebrate animals and groups have common names that include the term fish (for example, crayfish and shellfish), but these do not resemble and are not related to true fishes. Furthermore, there are members of the terrestrial vertebrate classes, such as whales and sea snakes, that have adopted an aquatic way of life; these may superficially resemble fishes and are sometimes erroneously called fishes, but they are air-breathers, and their anatomical structure reveals their relationship to land animals.

Characteristic Anatomical Features

A typical fish is torpedo-shaped, with a head containing a brain and sensory organs, a trunk with a muscular wall surrounding a cavity containing the internal organs, and a muscular post-anal tail. Most fish propel themselves through the water by weaving movements of their bodies and control their direction by means of the fins. All have skins covered with slimy glandular secretions that decrease friction with the water; in addition, nearly all have scales, which together with the secretions form a nearly waterproof coating. All fishes have a lateral line system of sensory organs for detecting pressure changes in the water. All have water-breathing organs called gills located in passages leading from the throat, or pharynx, to the exterior; a few fishes also have air-breathing lungs as an additional means of respiration. In all but the most primitive class, the gill passages are supported by skeletal structures called gill arches. Plankton-feeding fish have structures called gill rakers attached to the gill arches; these strain minute organisms from the water as it passes out of the pharynx. Fish breathe by taking water into the mouth and forcing it out through the gill passages; as the water passes over the thin-walled gills, dissolved oxygen diffuses into the gill capillaries and carbon dioxide diffuses out. The circulatory system is closed, and the heart is two-chambered; the blood is red. With few exceptions, fish are cold-blooded; that is, they cannot regulate their body temperature, which is the same as that of the environment.


Methods of reproduction are varied. Sharks have internal fertilization, and most give birth to live young. Those that lay eggs produce large ones with tough shells. Since embryonic development is well-protected in these fish, they produce a relatively small number of young, only seven or eight at a time in some species. A few of the bony fishes, including some aquarium species, are live bearers, but most lay small, unprotected eggs that are fertilized after deposition in water. In most marine species the eggs float freely in the currents, where they are eaten by other animals. An enormous number of eggs is therefore necessary to ensure the maturation of a few; in many species a female produces as many as 5 million eggs in one spawn. The eggs of most marine fishes contain oil droplets that buoy them up, while those of most freshwater fishes are heavy, with sticky surfaces that adhere to objects in the water. Most freshwater species build nests for the protection of the eggs, and in some the adults guard the nests.

Types of Fish

The Jawless Fishes

These primitive fishes lack jaws and the paired pelvic and pectoral fins characteristic of more advanced fishes. The two living types are the bloodsucking lampreys and the scavenging hagfishes. Fishes of the extinct class Placodermi, the armored fishes, were the first vertebrates to develop jaws and paired fins. These fish had bony skeletons and were covered with bony armor.

The Cartilaginous Fishes

The cartilaginous fish (sharks, rays, and chimaeras) are distinguished from the bony fish by their cartilage skeletons, by the absence of either a swim bladder or lungs, by the construction of their tail fins, and by the absence in most of a gill covering, or operculum. The skin of members of this group is covered with imbedded toothlike structures called denticles, giving it a rough, sandpapery quality. Sharks are almost exclusively marine in distribution.

The Bony Fishes

The bony fishes are distinguished from other living fishes by their bone skeletons and by the presence of either a swim bladder (which functions as a float) or, in a few fishes, lungs. The bony fishes are divided into two subclasses, the lobe-finned (or fleshy-finned) fish and the ray-finned fish. The latter group includes over 95% of all living fish species.

The earliest bony fishes were fleshy-finned; they gave rise to the amphibians (the first terrestrial vertebrates, or tetrapods). The only surviving fleshy-finned fishes are the lungfishes and coelacanths (see lobefin). These fishes retain some of the traits of ancestral bony fishes: fleshy fins with supporting bones (precursors of the limbs of land vertebrates), internal nostrils, and lungs.

Ray-finned fishes, now predominant in both fresh and marine waters, represent an advanced adaptation of the bony fishes to strictly aquatic conditions; they are the most highly successful and diverse of the fishes. In nearly all of these fishes the lung has evolved into a hydrostatic organ, the swim bladder. The fins in this group consist of a web of skin supported by horny rays. Each ray is moved by a set of muscles, giving the fin great flexibility. Most ray-finned fish have overlapping scales made of very thin layers of bone. Their skeletal structure is light but strong and most have excellent vision.


See W. S. Hoar and D. J. Randall, Fish Physiology (6 vol., 1969–71); J. E. Webb et al. ed., Guide to Living Fishes (1981); J. A. Long, The Rise of Fishes (2d ed., 2010).

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