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Anchovies divide into two major groups. Grenadier anchovies Coilia (including 13 species) have a body tapering to the rear, ending in a pointed rather than forked tail continuous with the anal fin. Anchovies proper (Engraulis and 13 other genera) include 125 species.

They are delicate fishes that lose all their scales when caught in a net. With the scales goes all their superficial skin, and death soon follows. Despite their success in nature and their importance to humans and other forms of life, anchovies do not survive long enough in captivity and are the least understood of all the clupeoids.

Feeding primarily on other anchovies, the few predatory types reach a large size (more than 20 centimeters or 8 inches). They also have large teeth, and tend to have solitary rather than schooling habits, they include the sabertooth anchovies in tropical America, and the sabertooth thryssa and hairfin anchovies in Indo-Malaya and Chin-Japan. Most anchovies, in general, are recognized by their prominent snout and long under-slung lower jaw, which extends far behind the eye, making a large mouth. Much like the Baleen Whale, the mouth is simply left open as they filter feed by swimming through the water. The anchovy snout contains a rostral organ formed from the anterior part of the sensory canals that extend forward above and below the eye.

No other fish has been as important to humans, who throughout history have exploited the clupeoids for food, oil, fertilizer, or animal feed. Some anchovy species have sustained commercial catches exceeding 11 million tons per year.