Can fish fall from the sky?


Tim the Yowie Man


Tim the Yowie Man

Naturalist, author, broadcaster and tour guide Tim the Yowie Man has dedicated the past 25 years to documenting Australia’s unusual natural phenomena. He’s the author of several books, including Haunted and Mysterious Australia (New Holland, 2018). Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @TimYowie
By Tim the Yowie Man 5 July 2019
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Spend any time travelling in outback Australia and it won’t be long before someone tries to convince you they do.

IT SEEMS THAT just about every country pub has a barfly who remembers the day it ‘rained fish’.

The first time I heard of this phenomenon was in the 1990s at the Royal Mail Hotel in Hungerford in south-western Queensland, on the New South Wales border.

There a local (yes, he was sober at the time) captivated the bar with a yarn about “the day it rained fish” in his home town.

“During the storm, I went outside and there were fish flapping around on previously parched paddocks,” he revealed. “The unsuspecting fish must have been plucked out of a dam or creek by a mini-tornado a long way away.”

Dr Peter Unmack, an ichthyologist at the Institute for Applied Ecology at the University of Canberra, has also encountered similar tales of fish falls in outback Australia.

“When I go out collecting fish in Central Australia, almost everywhere I go someone claims they’ve seen a rain of fish,” explains the self-confessed fish geek.

“The first thing I ask them is ‘how many fish did you find in your water tank?’” says Peter. “And the answer is always none. That’s because in almost all cases I believe the fish actually swam there.”

According to Peter, “When it rains hard the land can quickly become a shallow lake. And if you have enough overland flow, some fish can swim through it.”

Peter believes that most of the fish spotted after big rains in outback Australia fit the description of the spangled grunter (Leiopotherapon unicolor).

It’s Australia’s most widespread small freshwater fish species, and is found in most waterbodies in the continent’s northern two-thirds. “They are extraordinarily good at dispersing with an ability to swim a kilometre or two in 20 minutes,” Peter says.

“In addition, spangled grunters are moderately capable jumpers, which also helps them overcome any small barriers,” Peter explains.

“Their sudden appearance following rain once gave rise to folklore suggesting they were able to burrow and aestivate in dry mud, but to date this has never been documented.”

So, what about the tornado theory?

“To pick up a fish and move it in a storm is pretty challenging,” Peter says.

“I’ve been on the other side of a dam when a big willy-willy has come across and there isn’t the slightest bit of moisture in it. To pick up water and fish would take an extremely high velocity of wind.

“Even if a fully blown tornado was to form in outback Australia, anything caught up in it is going to have the hell beaten out of it,” Peter says.

“The power in those things is ridiculous – there’s so much debris a fish would get pummelled by sand, twigs, dirt and more.”

Verdict: It is possible for fish to fall from the sky during a storm.

But it is extremely unlikely, especially in Australia, where the types and intensities of tornadoes are not the same as those reported in some other parts of the world.