8 Fascinating Facts About Barracuda

Interesting Traits and Behaviors of Barracuda

Barracuda swimming in front of coral reef.
Barracuda live near reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves around the world. Getty Images/PhotoLibrary/Dickson Images

The barracuda is sometimes portrayed as an ocean menace, but does it deserve such a reputation? This common fish has threatening teeth and a habit of approaching swimmers, but it's not the danger you might think. These eight fascinating facts about barracuda should set the record straight about this misunderstood fish.

01
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There Are at Least 27 Kinds of Barracuda

Great barracuda swimming.
The great barracuda is one of at least 27 species of barracuda. Getty Images/WaterFrame/Franco Banfi

The name barracuda doesn't apply to one specific fish, but an entire family of fish. The Sphyraenidae is the group of fish known collectively as barracuda. The species most people picture when thinking of a barracuda is probably the great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), a commonly encountered fish. But the world's oceans are full of all kinds of barracuda, including the pickhandle barracuda, the sawtooth barracuda, and the sharpfin barracuda. Some species are named for the area where they are found, like the Guinean barracuda, the Mexican barracuda, the Japanese barracuda, and the European barracuda.

02
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Barracuda Don't Look Like Other Fish

Barracuda with a school of fish.
Barracuda live near coral reefs in tropic or subtropical waters. Getty Images/The Image Bank/Giordano Cipriani

Even if you're new to fish identification, you'll quickly learn to recognize the barracuda's distinctive look. A barracuda has a long, slender body that is tapered at the ends and thicker in the middle. The head is somewhat flattened on top and pointed in front, and the lower jaw projects forward, menacingly. Its two dorsal fins are far apart, and its pectoral fins are positioned low on the body. Most species are dark on top, with silver sides and a clear lateral line that extends from the head to the tail on each side. The barracuda's caudal fin is slightly forked ​and curved on the trailing edge. Smaller barracuda species may max out at 20 inches in length, but the larger species can achieve a startling 6 feet or longer in size.

03
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Barracuda Inhabit Tropical and Subtropical Waters Throughout the World

Barracuda swimming in front of coral reef.
Barracuda live near reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves around the world. Getty Images/PhotoLibrary/Dickson Images

Most species of barracuda live in near-shore habitats, such as seagrass beds, mangroves, and coral reefs. They're primarily marine fish, although a few varieties can tolerate brackish water at times. Barracuda inhabit the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and are also commonly found in the Caribbean and Red seas.

04
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Barracuda Are Drawn to Shiny Objects

Silverside fish.
Barracuda hunt by scanning for silver, shiny items in the water. Getty Images/Moment/Humberto Ramirez

Barracuda hunt mainly by sight, scanning the water for signs of prey as they swim. Smaller fish are most visible when they reflect light, and often look like shiny metal objects in the water. This, unfortunately, can lead to misunderstandings between barracuda and humans in the water. A swimmer or diver with anything reflective is likely to get an aggressive bump from a curious barracuda. The barracuda isn't interested in you, necessarily. It just wants to sample the object that looks like a shiny, silver fish. Still, it's a bit unsettling to have a barracuda come barreling toward you, teeth first, so it's best to remove anything reflective before getting in the water.

05
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Barracuda Can Swim Up to 35 Mph

Barracuda close-up.
Barracuda can swim up to 35 mph for short distances. Getty Images/Biosphoto/Tobias Bernhard Raff

A barracuda's body is shaped like a torpedo, and made for cutting through water. This long, lean, and muscular fish is one of the fastest creatures in the sea, capable of swimming up to 35 mph. Barracuda swim almost as fast as the notoriously speedy mako sharks. Barracuda can't maintain top speed for long distances, however. The barracuda is a sprinter, capable of bursts of speed in pursuit of prey. They spend most of their time swimming slow enough to survey for food, and only accelerate when a meal is within reach.

06
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Barracuda Have Terrifying Teeth

Barracuda head, showing teeth.
The barracuda is known for its terrifying teeth. Getty Images/Moment/Humberto Ramirez

Is there anything more unnerving than being approached by a fearless fish with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth? Barracuda have big mouths, with long jaws and a characteristic underbite. They also have a lot of teeth. In fact, barracuda have two rows of teeth: an outer row of small but sharp teeth for tearing flesh apart, and an inner row of long, dagger-like teeth to firmly grasp its prey. A few of the barracuda's teeth point backward, as an extra aid for securing squirming fish. Smaller fish are mercifully swallowed whole, but larger fish are efficiently chopped to pieces in the hungry barracuda's jaws. A barracuda can open its mouth wide enough to snatch just about any fish it encounters, from a tiny killifish to a chunky grouper.

07
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Barracuda Aren't as Dangerous as They Appear

Barracuda and SCUBA diver.
Barracuda encounters while diving are common. Getty Images/Corbis Documentary/Jeffrey L. Rotman

Because barracuda are fairly common and inhabit the same waters where people swim and dive, the chance of encountering a barracuda is quite high. But despite their proximity to people in the water, barracuda rarely attack or injure humans. Most bites occur when the barracuda mistakes a metallic object for a fish, and attempts to snatch it. The barracuda isn't likely to continue biting once it realizes the object in question isn't food. Barracuda attacks are rare, and almost never fatal. Those teeth will do some damage to an arm or leg, though, so victims usually require stitches.

08
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Barracuda Are Delicious, but Large Barracuda Can Be Toxic

Man holding barracuda.
Eating large barracuda can put you at risk for ciguatera poisoning. Getty Images/Corbis Documentary/Doug Smith

The bigger the barracuda, the greater the chance it will make you sick. At the bottom of the food chain, a toxic plankton known as Gambiendiscus toxicus attaches itself to algae on the coral reef. Small, herbivorous fish feed on the algae and consume the toxin, too. Larger, predatory fish prey on the small fish, and accumulate a higher concentration of the toxin in their bodies. Each successive predator accumulates more toxins. While smaller barracuda are generally safe to eat, larger barracuda can be ciguatoxic because they consume larger fish with higher toxin loads.

Ciguatera food poisoning is unlikely to kill you, but it's not an experience you'll enjoy. The biotoxins cause gastrointestinal, neurological, and cardiovascular symptoms that persist for weeks or months. Patients report hallucinations, severe muscle and joint pain, skin irritation, and even a reversal of hot and cold sensations. Unfortunately, there's no way to identify a ciguatoxic barracuda, and neither heat nor freezing can kill the fat-soluble toxins in a contaminated fish. It's best to avoid consuming large barracuda.

Sources:

  • "Family Sphyraenidae – Barracuda," Fishbase.org. Accessed online November 6, 2017.
  • "Record-Breakers," ReefQuest Center for Shark Research website. Accessed online November 13, 2017.
  • "Great Barracuda," Florida Museum, University of Florida website. Accessed online November 13, 2017.
  • "Ciguatoxins," by Richard Lawley, Food Safety Watch, January 30, 2013. Accessed online November 6, 2017.
  • "The Perils of Ciguatera," by Doug Olander, Sport Fishing Magazine, May 5, 2011. Accessed online November 6, 2017.
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Hadley, Debbie. "8 Fascinating Facts About Barracuda." ThoughtCo, Dec. 19, 2017, thoughtco.com/barracuda-facts-4154625. Hadley, Debbie. (2017, December 19). 8 Fascinating Facts About Barracuda. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/barracuda-facts-4154625 Hadley, Debbie. "8 Fascinating Facts About Barracuda." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/barracuda-facts-4154625 (accessed January 21, 2018).