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A first: Fish documented feeding on flying birds

Researchers confirm the first record of a freshwater fish preying on birds in flight as video shows an African tigerfish leaping into air to snag a barn swallow

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An African tigerfish leaping out of the water to prey on a flying barn swallow; photo is a screen grab from video below

Fish getting plucked from the surface of a lake by a predatory bird is quite common, but who has ever heard of a fish jumping out of the water to grab and eat a flying bird?

Since the 1940s, researchers had heard rumors about such a phenomenon occurring in the freshwater lakes of South Africa, but Nico Smit and his team were “never really convinced by the anecdotal reports.”

Until they saw it for themselves.

African tigerfish, a silvery fish that resembles a striped bass only with a mouthful of sharp teeth, were observed leaping out of the water to snag flying barn swallows from the waters of Schroda Dam (a small storage lake) in Mapungubwe National Park near the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe.

It is the first confirmed record of a freshwater fish preying on birds in flight, the researchers reported in the Journal of Fish Biology, according to Nature.com.

“The whole action of jumping and catching the swallow in flight happens so incredibly quickly that after we first saw it, it took all of us a while to really fully comprehend what we had just seen,” Smit told Nature.com. “The first reaction was one of pure joy, because we realized that we were spectators to something really incredible and unique.”

Because it happens to quickly, the researchers were lucky to capture video of one such attack by a tigerfish on a barn swallow. Raw footage from the study can be seen at the bottom. Nature.com offers the moment of attack in this video (you might want to watch it with the sound muted, unless you like the accompanying banjo music):

Smit and his team made the discovery while conducting a radio telemetry study of the barn swallows. During a 15-day survey, as many as 300 barn swallows were preyed upon by the local African tigerfish population, according to the study.

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A juvenile African tigerfish; photo from Wikimedia Commons

These included surface or sub-surface pursuits of barn swallows, followed by aerial strikes, and direct aerial strikes initiated from deeper water, the study said.

Smit told Nature.com that this remarkable behavior has not been revealed until now because the study of freshwater fish in Africa is very limited.

“We hope that our findings will really focus the attention on the importance of basic freshwater research, and specifically fish behavior,” Smit told Nature.com.

Here is the raw footage from the study with the successful attempt by the tigerfish shown in slow-motion beginning at the 53-second mark:

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