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What is a Guitarfish?

By H.R. Childress
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Guitarfish, which make up the family Rhinobatidae, belong to the same class as sharks and rays, and are named for the guitar-like shape of their bodies. They resemble a cross between a ray and a shark, as they have a flattened body that ends in a shark-like tail. Various species of guitarfish are found in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. In some countries, they are caught and sold commercially or fished for sport. These fish are not usually harmful to humans.

Rhinobatidae consists of seven genera, containing over 50 species. Most species of guitarfish reach an averege adult length of 2 to 4.5 ft (0.6 to 1.4 m). There are a few species, such as the giant guitarfish, or Rhynchobatus djiddensis, and bowmouth, also known as Rhina ancylostoma, that can reach over 10 ft (3.1 m) in length, and weigh 300 to 500 lbs (135 to 227 kg). All species have a flat, elongated head with eyes located on the top, and the mouth and gills located on the underside. There are two dorsal fins, and caudal fins that are located on the long, shark-like tail. These fish are ovoviviparous, which means that the offspring are born fully developed.

Guitarfish are bottom-dwellers, and most species are found in tropical coastal areas. Their diet generally consists of other bottom-dwelling ocean animals — mainly crustaceans and other invertebrates. They trap prey against the ocean floor, and crush the shells of invertebrates before consuming the edible portions.

In some parts of the world guitarfish are a highly sought-after, commercial species. They are particularly prized in many Asian countries, where the pectoral fins are used in shark-fin soup, and larger fins fetch a premium price. Commercial fishing also occurs off the Pacific coast of California and Mexico. Giant guitarfish are a popular species for sport fishing in southern Africa.

Two distinctive species of Rhinobatidae are the shovelnose shark and the bowmouth, or sharkfin, guitarfish. The shovelnose shark — not an actual shark, as it is a member of Rhinobatidae — is named for its shovel-like jaw and wide pectoral fins, which give the head a triangular shape. They are found in the Pacific Ocean, along the coasts of California and Mexico.

Bowmouth guitarfish are named for the unusual shape of their mouths, which are broad and wavy, with ridged teeth. The alternative name of sharkfin stems from their exceptionally tall dorsal fins. Bowmouth habitat typically covers a wide range, from South Africa to Japan to Australia.

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