The banded archerfish is a spitting assassin
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science communicator with a love for weird and wonderful animals. From strange behaviours and special adaptations to newly discovered species and the researchers who find them, her topics celebrate how alien yet relatable so many of the creatures that live amongst us can be.
NOT SATISFIED TO feed on aquatic prey alone, the banded archerfish shoots a highly targeted jet of water at insects on overhanging branches to knock them into the water.
These ‘spit missiles’ can hit targets up to 2 or 3 metres away, and once the insect hits the water, it takes less than a split second for the archerfish to reach it and gobble it up.
At home in Australia’s brackish mangrove estuaries, ranging from north-western Western Australia to northern Queensland, the banded archerfish (Toxotes jaculatrix) is also found throughout the Indo-Pacific, including in Thailand, China, and Papua New Guinea.
Its name, Toxotes, borrows from the Ancient Greek word for “archer”, and refers to Sagittarius, the bow-wielding centaur and ninth astrological sign.
Banded archerfish can grow to be quite large – they’re typically about 20 cm long, but the biggest specimens stretch to 30 cm. They sport distinctive black stripes along their silvery sides and their backs have a subtle green or brown hue.
Banded archerfish are omnivores, which means they’ll eat pretty much anything they can get their… fins on. Edible foliage and small crustaceans and fish are all fair game in the water. Above the water, they’ll target insects such as flies and crickets.
Their water jets don’t just cover an impressive distance – banded archerfish have specialised mouths and jaws that allow them to be completely in control of the force, the angle, and the speed of their spit.
Like expert marksmen, they can even map out their trajectory to hit a moving target, and scientists have observed how they account for the light refraction that occurs underwater as they judge their timing.
Watch them in action here:
In 2006, a team of German researchers found that banded archerfish might actually learn the water pistol technique from other members of their school. They reported that young fish that had observed others spitting ended up being more accurate themselves.
Like any good assassin, the archerfish doesn’t just have one weapon in its arsenal. It can also leap up out of the water to heights of up to 2.5 body lengths to snare unsuspecting prey.
Here’s some more footage of these incredibly cool creatures: