sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) are a species of ray-finned, predominantly marine fish, commonly found along the east coast of North America and South America. They’re known for their front teeth, which can look scary human teeth (opens in new tab).
Sheepshead fish should not be confused with a species of fish of the same name found on the west coast of North America called California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher). Although both species of fish have teeth, they are not closely related and belong to different families.
What do sheephead fish look like?
Sheepshead fish have dark vertical stripes running down their light gray body; The resemblance to striped prison overalls inspired the nickname “convict fish”. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (opens in new tab). The fish also have sharp spines running down their backs. Most sheepsheads grow between 17 inches and 17.7 inches (43 to 45 centimeters) in length. However, some individuals can grow up to 91 cm long, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (opens in new tab) (IUCN).
Why do sheephead fish have teeth?
Sheepshead fish develop square, human-like teeth as they mature so they can feed on hard-shelled prey. As juveniles, they will eat any molluscs they can find and a variety of small shelled animals, including crustaceans a few millimeters long, such as ostracods. According to the IUCN, once sheepshead fish grow longer than about 5 cm, they start eating hard-shelled animals such as molluscs and barnacles.
In 2021, anglers at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head, North Carolina caught a sheephead fish with a spectacular series of crunches, Live Science previously reported. Photos of the fish show that this species can grow prominent, human-like front teeth as well as rows of short molars in its lower jaw.
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Where do sheephead fish live?
Sheepsheadfish live in marine habitats and estuaries in the western Atlantic, from Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, along the eastern US and Central American coasts and as far south as southern Brazil, according to the IUCN.
Sheepshead fish taxonomy
Genus and species: Archosargus probatocephalus
While sheepsheads typically live in saltwater and slightly salty brackish water, they can sometimes be found in freshwater habitats during the winter as they seek out warmer waters where springs and rivers empty into the ocean. In late winter and early spring, sheephead fish migrate offshore to spawn Florida Museum of Natural History (opens in new tab) (FMNH). Sheepshead fish swim from the surface to a depth of 15 meters Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (opens in new tab) in Panama.
Related: Under the Sea: 50 stunning images from our oceans
How Do Sheephead Fish Breed?
To reproduce, a female fish releases her eggs, which a male then fertilizes with sperm. Scientists don’t know much about sheephead fish spawning behavior, but females can produce between 1,100 and 250,000 eggs, according to FMNH. After fertilization, the eggs hatch in just 28 hours. Sheepshead fish usually become sexually mature at 2 years old and can live for at least 20 years.
Are Sheephead Fish Dangerous to Humans?
Sheepshead fish are safe for human consumption and are fished commercially and recreationally along the US southeast coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the IUCN. Even though sheepsheads have quite a number of crunches, they’re not usually dangerous to humans, but provoking them isn’t a good idea.
“I wouldn’t hesitate to swim in waters inhabited by these fish,” said David Catania, collections director for ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco Snopes.com (opens in new tab) in 2021 after a TikTok video describing a sheephead as a “demon fish” went viral.
“They pose no threat to humans unless they are harassed,” added Catania. “Because they are good to eat, sheepsheads are targeted by anglers, so handling a sheepshead once caught creates the possibility of being bitten or stung by their sharp dorsal fin spines.”
Are Sheephead Fish Endangered?
Sheephead fish are not endangered. IUCN last assessed the species in 2011 and concluded that it should be classified as “least concern” – a conservation category for species that face very low risk of extinction. The species has a wide distribution and is abundant in many parts of its range with sustained populations.
The IUCN found that the number of these fish caught annually in commercial and recreational fisheries had declined prior to 2011, but the organization attributed these declines to laws restricting and banning the use of certain nets that are harmful to fish , and that there was no evidence that sheephead fish populations were declining.
To see a map of where sheepshead fish live and a diagram of how they interact with other species, visit the Encyclopedia of Life (opens in new tab)Website. Watch this short YouTube video by to see a sheepshead feeding on clams Collier Sea Grant (opens in new tab). For more information on the fish that live on the east coast of North America, see “Atlantic coast fish of North America (opens in new tab)(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999).
Originally published on Live Science.
https://www.livescience.com/sheepshead-fish Sheepshead fish: Facts about the fish with ‘human’ teeth