Sphyraena barracuda
King of the Reef


The Great Barracuda
         Image from NOAA Photo Library

   Imagine scuba diving in an exotic coral reef teeming with aquatic life; clown fish dart in and out of anemones, jellyfish float lazily past, and many brightly colored creatures swim through the coral. All this time there is another fish lurking near the surface of the water, observing these activities and waiting for his chance to strike. This is Sphyraena barracuda, commonly known as the great barracuda; the dominant predator of coral reef environments who attacks prey at speeds so swift the assault is over in the blink of an eye. The jaws of a great barracuda have been described as a trap against which there is little defense. This awesome predator can travel at speeds up to 40-58 kilometers per hour, but between meals the barracuda mainly drifts slowly through his environment, hardly expending any effort, giving him Image from NOAA Photo Librarya reputation of stealth and silence. Adult great barracudas have long, lean bodies with a pointed head and large, gaping mouth. They are dark grey colored on their top surface and shiny silver on the sides and bellies. This coloring enhances their camouflage in the shimmery blue ocean water.

    The Sphyraena genus is the only genus in the family Sphyraenidae, which includes 18 to 20 other barracuda species; all of these are predators and have fairly similar morphological traits. The genus name Sphyraena comes from the root word meaning “hammer,” and the species name barracuda actually originated from a Caribbean language. The taxonomy for the great barracuda has been changed many times, having 17 different specific epithet names in the past 250 years. The full classification for the great barracuda is:

Domain Eukarya: Cells have genetic material contained in a nucleus and membrane bound organelles

Kingdom Animalia: Multi-cellular, heterotrophic, no cell wall

Phylum Chordata: Bilaterally symmetrical, notochord, tubular nerve chord, pharyngeal pouches, endostyle, post anal tail

Subphylum Vertebrata: Vertebral column, endoskeleton with muscle attachment sites for movement

Infraphylum Gnathostomata: Vertebrates with jaws

Superclass Osteichthyes: Endoskeleton made up of bone

Class Actinopterygii: Fins have webs of skin supported by bony rays attached to internal skeleton

Order Perciformes: Dorsal and anal fins have both anterior spiny rays and posterior soft rays

Family Sphyraenidae: Includes only barracuda species which are all predators and have same general morphology and life cycle

Genus/Species: Sphyraena barracuda, the largest of the barracuda species


    Information from: Hierarchy of Life

Figure 1. Phylogenetic tree of common fish groups

         Separations between different fish groups have been made mostly based on morphological traits; however, Cladistics, or the study of the course of evolution based on molecular and DNA evidence, has been increasingly important in distinguishing between fish groups. The phylogenetic tree in Figure 1 shows the breakdown of some well known fish within the class Actinopterygii. This tree shows the split between the lobe-finned fishes and ray-finned fishes. Ray-finned fishes are described as having thin boney projections from the internal skeleton connected with webs of skin which make up their fins. The tree also lists examples of fish from the different orders of the Actinopterygii, the barracuda being in the Perciformes order, or the spiny-finned fishes.

Click to read about The Great Barracuda's life history and habitat!

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