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Lizardfishes and their allies have both primitive and advanced features. The primitive features include abdominal pelvic fins, an adipose (fatty) fin, absence of fin spines, and scales that are usually rounded when present. Advanced features are a bladder without a duct, and a maxillary bone included from the gape (not on the edge of the jaw). Many, especially the deep-sea species, are bisexual anachronous hermaphrodites; that is, they may have the ability to self-fertilize.

The shallow-living lizardfishes comprise 34 species of cigar-shaped fishes with large toothy mouths. When viewed from the side, the head is very lizard-like, and the eye is situated well before the end of the mouth. The largest species are about 60 centimeters (24 inches) long, but most are smaller. The dorsal fin is at the mid-body, and they have a small adipose fin before the tail. They occur in all warm seas, mostly inshore, with the deepest at 400 meters (1,300 feet). Lizardfishes typically sit on the bottom in sandy areas, with their front end propped up by their ventral fins, and they can also bury themselves, leaving just their eyes exposed. Their cryptic coloration enables them to ambush prey, mostly fishes. Like some other members of their order, they have very distinctive pelagic (free-swimming) young that are scale-less and transparent, but with large black blotches in the skin on their lower sides; these “pigment shields” are actually internal and associated with the gut, but their function is unknown. In profile the slender lizardfish shows the distinctive reptilian appearance that gives this group of fishes their common name.