Flying gurnard

A fish that likes to wing it

Author: Pat
28th June 2015

The flying gurnard (Dactylopterus volitans) is known by a few different names, including helmet gurnard or flying fish. Despite the name, the flying gurnard cannot fly or even glide. Located at their sides are enlarged pectoral fins that are often tipped in a beautiful blue.

overly confident gurnards have been known to head-butt divers

The development of the enlarged pectoral fins has occurred as a defence mechanism. When feeling threatened they extend these fins to confuse predators, or startle them into thinking they are much bigger than they are. Flying gurnard can be seen walking around on the sea floor, using further modifications to the pectoral fins. This walking behaviour helps them in finding benthic prey. Although most walking fish have lost the buoyancy organ – the swim bladder – the flying gurnard has retained this so can still be found swimming around.

If you thought a fish with wings was weird, an additional feature is weirder still. The flying gurnard can drum on their swim bladder, making a grunting noise. And if the large fins don’t deter predators, they also have developed scales that act as bony armour. Some overly confident gurnards have been known to use the armour to head-butt divers. Reaching a size of around 50 centimetres (20 inches) can lead to quite a bump.

Most flying gurnards are found within the Pacific, although D. volitans is the one family member that is found throughout the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Flying gurnards have no commercial value as food – but they are found in the pet trade.


  • Found at depths from one to one hundred meters
  • Most are found within the Pacific, one species can be found throughout the Atlantic, English Channel and the Mediterranean
  • Often found over sandy areas or mud searching for food.

Key features:

  • Distinctive enlarged pectoral fins that are flared up when they feel threatened
  • Often walk around on the seabed
  • Can grow up to 50 centimetres (20 inches)

Conservation status:

  • Not evaluated

Compiled by Ellie Richards, a marine biologist and enthusiastic UK diver. Check out Ellie’s page on Instagram

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