Flying gurnard – (Dactylopterus volitans)

Often known as helmet gurnard, can be found on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


On the European and African side of the Atlantic, it can be found around the English Channel across to Angola. It is present in the Mediterranean Sea, very common around Gozo and Malta. On the American side it is spotted as far north as Massachusetts, even Canada on less frequent occasions. Going south, the Flying gurnard travels as far as Argentina including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.


The Gurnard is a bottom-dwelling species of warm to tropical temperate waters. They have been observed to ‘walk’ along sandy sea floors while in search of food. They spend most of their adult life on the sea bottom, but in some cases some species have an extended larval stage, which floats around the oceans freely.


The diet is reasonably simple, varying from crustaceans, bivalves and other small invertebrates. Small fish may come into the diet if they are agile enough to catch them.


The flying gurnard belongs to the family of Dactylopteridae, these are noted for greatly enlarged pectoral fins. They are the only family of monotypic genus classed in this suborder of Dactylopteroidei. Another species, but related are found in the Indo-Pacific under the name of Dactyloptena, these dwell in the warmer waters of the South Pacific and Indian Oceans


Colouration is variable, from brownish, reddish to greenish, some with yellow patches. When ‘flying’ they spread brightly coloured wings which are semi-transparent, with phosphorescent bright blue wing tips. They have pelvic fins which enables them to move around in search of prey. Gurnards possess a swim bladder with two lobes and a muscle called a “drumming muscle”.  The drumming muscle can beat against the swim bladder to produce sounds. The body is covered in heavy, protective scales, while the undersides of the large pectoral fins are bright in colour. The colouration of the fins is thought to startle predators. The fish has large eyes and reaches a length of up to 50 cm and 1.8 kg in weight.


At present they are classified as Least Concerned. Often caught as bycatch in fishermen’s nets, but are not caught on a commercial basis.

Photo: Janet Bulmer at DiveSMART Gozo

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