Barracudas: A Tale of the Teeth

Looks aren’t everything, and barracudas prove that. Sort of. In a word, they look fearsome, and fearsome they are to their fishy prey – generally guys like grunts, groupers, snappers, even small tunas and other fishes. They look fearsome to divers, but unless you go up and try to punch them in the mouth or something (not recommended) they shouldn’t bother you.

A pair of Great Barracudas hover patiently above a wreck in the Florida Keys, ready to shoot like a bullet as soon as they spot vulnerable prey.

BARRACUDAS LOOK FEARSOME BECAUSE OF ALL THOSE FANG-LIKE TEETH – zillions of them firmly embedded into their imposing upper and lower jaws. The great secret of barracudas (Family Sphyraena) is that they missed out on development of the protrusible jaws that enable 96 percent of all bony fishes to vacuum in their prey rather than chomp on it. Barracudas’ more primitive jaws are designed to strike, chomp and devour prey by ripping them apart. Small prey they may devour whole. Larger victims they strike, injure, possibly sever and circle around to finish the kill and deal with the pieces.

CURIOUS CREATURES

To be clear, barracudas tend to be inquisitive creatures. Usually, they ignore divers, and attacks on divers are very rare, fatal attacks even rarer (apparently a grand total of two since 1947). But they may spot and get interested in a spearfished fish, or curious about a glint from a reflective object like a camera housing and follow a diver around. Personally, if I had a fish on a spear in those circumstances, I’d get rid of it.

Barracudas often use the shadow of a boat hull for concealment while waiting for an opportunity to strike a vulnerable victim.

STEALTHY DAYTIME HUNTERS

Where most piscivores are crepuscular – they hunt primarily during the dusk and dawn twilight hours – barracudas hunt throughout the day, ever vigilant for victims. It’s not like they just sidle up to a random fish and grab it. You’ll often see them hovering motionless in the shadow of a boat’s hull, near a wreck or just cruising slowly around the reef, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groupings, occasionally in considerable posses.

Barracudas hunt primarily by eyesight. That Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) hanging out motionless beneath a boat is watching, sizing up potential victims some 20 or 30 yards away, studying weaknesses or inept defensive positioning. In a flash, it will shoot like a bullet at its target at speeds of up to 35 MPH, striking and chomping. Afterwards, you may see other members of the victim’s group nonchalantly sharing space with the barracuda who moments before took out their fellow. They know when there’s danger and when there isn’t.

Sometimes barracudas, like these Blackfin Barracudas (S. genie) on the Great Barrier Reef hang out in schools.

TROPICAL & SUBTROPICAL WORLDWIDE

Barracudas, of course, are characterized by long, cylindrical bodies, largely silvery (although they can darken) with black spots along their bodies – and very noticeable mouths and teeth. With 29 species reported worldwide, the largest, is the European Barracuda,(S. sphyraena), measuring up to 5.5 feet, found in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. A Pacific species, S. sphyraena, ranges as far north as Puget Sound and as far south as the tip of Baja California.

There are only a few species reported in the tropical Atlantic/Caribbean basin, and only one is actually called a barracuda – the ubiquitous Great Barracuda (S. barracuda), typically between 1½ and three feet in length. The others are the less-seen Northern and Southern Sennets (S. borealis/S. picudilla), max 18 inches, and the Guaguanche (S. Guachancho), max two feet.

Little is known about barracuda reproduction habits. It is known that juvenile Great Barracudas resemble miniature adults by the time they reach about half an inch in length, and spend the first year of their lives in the safety of mangrove forests and seagrass patches. Subsequently, the move into reef and open ocean waters.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Reef Fish Identification Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Reef Fish Identification, Tropical Pacific, Gerald Allen, Roger Steene, Paul Humann, Ned DeLoach; Marine Life, Caribbean, Bahamas, Florida, Marty Snyderman & Clay Wiseman; Reef Fish Behavior, Ned DeLoach;

 

 

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