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What is a Sandfish?

A sandfish isn't a fish at all, but a remarkable reptile thriving in desert sands. With a sleek, legless body, it swims through dunes, a master of its arid realm. This creature's unique adaptations reveal nature's ingenuity in extreme environments. Discover how the sandfish's secrets are inspiring scientific advancements—what other mysteries might it unlock? Join us to explore further.
Kathryn Hulick
Kathryn Hulick

Sandfish is the common name for six different types of animals that live or burrow in sand, including one that isn't a fish at all. The sandfish (Scincus scincus), a species of skink, is a lizard that earned its misleading name because of the way it swims beneath the sand in the deserts of northern Africa and the middle east. This lizard's skillful method of moving through sand has inspired materials scientists to improve industrial technologies that handle grainy substances like gravel or flour. Often kept as a pet, this yellow and brown-striped lizard grows to about 8 inches (20 cm).

The beaked salmon (Gonorynchus gonorynchus) is a type of sandfish that is also commonly called a sandfish, sand eel, mousefish, or ratfish. Found in sandy, shallow tropical waters around the world, this skinny fish hides beneath the sand or mud during the day and hunts at night. It grows to about 20 inches (55 cm) and is sometimes fished for food.

The sandfish is a lizard that swims beneath the sand in the deserts of northern Africa.
The sandfish is a lizard that swims beneath the sand in the deserts of northern Africa.

Southern sandfishes (Leptoscopidae) are a family of fish with four separate species. They are characterized by fringed lips, long fins, and eyes near the very top of the head. One species commonly known as the estuary stargazer lives in shallow waters around New Zealand.

The belted sandfish (Serranus subligarius) grows to 4 inches (10 cm) and can be found in warm western Atlantic oceans from North Carolina to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Resembling a small sea bass, this fish is hermaphroditic, meaning it has both male and female sex organs at different stages of its life.

One sandfish, a kind of sea cucumber (Holuthuria scabra), is sometimes jokingly called the "garlic bread" sea cucumber because it is a tasty delicacy in China and its shape and size, up to 8 inches (20 cm), mimic a loaf of bread. Sometimes, it even has black bars along its back that look like grill marks. Over-harvesting and human development of the coastal areas where this type of sandfish lives, has resulted it in being named a vulnerable species in Singapore.

The rarest kind of sandfish, however, is the clanwilliam sandfish (Labeo seeberi), which lives only in the Olifants river system in South Africa. As of 2001, invasive fish species and habitat destruction had reduced this fish's distribution area to only 5 percent of what it once was. This bottom feeder thrives on algae and small invertebrates. The Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve in South Africa maintains a healthy population of this fish, which is listed as endangered.

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    • The sandfish is a lizard that swims beneath the sand in the deserts of northern Africa.
      By: Ruslan Olinchuk
      The sandfish is a lizard that swims beneath the sand in the deserts of northern Africa.