Is this the face of a killer?

Longtom - needlefish

There are a some disturbing facts about needlefish, sometimes called ‘long tom’, that you may not have known.

No stomach

Did you know, for example, that needlefish have no stomach? Their ancestors used to have them, but at some point in their evolution, they lost them.

So how does a fish, especially a carnivorous fish that swallows a lot of its protein-rich prey whole, digest its food without a stomach? Well, research led by Ryan Day of Brisbane’s University of Queensland found the following: instead of relying on acid-driven digestion in a stomach, needlefish produce an enzyme called ‘trypsin’, which can break down proteins without acid. It’s less efficient than stomach-based digestion, but it works, and because the needlefish’s diet contains so much protein, it can afford to rely on this less efficient method of absorbing it. Very clever. Read more about the study here.

Needlefish closely resemble North American freshwater gars (family Lepisosteidae) but they’re actually only distantly related to them, so calling them garfish is perhaps a little misleading. However, like gars, needlefish are long, thin and have a long narrow ‘beak’ carrying rows of very sharp teeth.


The second fact you may not be aware of is the fact that needlefish have been responsible for at least two human deaths.

Needlefish can swim at very high speed – up to 60 kilometres per hour (37 mph) – and, being surface dwellers, they regularly jump clear of the water. It is not unusual for them to leap clean over the decks of boats – especially at night – and occasionally they will collide with the people onboard, inflicting puncture wounds with their sharp beaks.

In 1977 a 10-year-old boy was night fishing with his father at Hanamaulu Bay, Kaua’i, Hawaii, when a metre-long needlefish leapt into his boat, piercing his eye and brain. [Read more]

In 2007 a 16-year-old Vietnamese boy was killed by a needlefish while night diving for sea cucumbers near Halong Bay. The fish’s beak, measuring approximately 15cm, pierced straight through the boy’s heart when the fish collided with him in about 2 metres of water, in full view of some of his friends. [Read more]


Needlefish are edible, sometimes considered tasty, but many people find their bones a little off-putting. We reckon it’s best to put them back… and if you see them in mid-air, keep your head down.

[Picture courtesy of]

James Green About James Green

James Green loves nothing more than casting a fly in pursuit of salmon, seatrout or, when the opportunity arises, a tailing bonefish, tarpon or permit.