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What is a Snakehead Fish?

By R. Kayne
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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A snakehead fish is a large, predatory freshwater fish native to Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other parts of Asia. There are 28 varieties of snakehead fish. The snakehead is imported to the U.S. as a food fish and also for the aquarium trade where many thousands are sold every year as pets.

The snakehead fish is unique in several ways from most other fish. Similar in body-type to a muscular eel, some varieties can grow to 4 feet (1.2m) in length, while many others mature to about 4 to 5 inches (10.16 to 12.7 cm). The snakehead has a flat snake-like head and toothed maw, hence it's name. What makes the snakehead so unique, however, is its voracious appetite and its ability to breathe air. In fact the snakehead can travel short distances across land and live for up to three days out of water! It will eat fish equal in size to itself and will consume small mammals as well. There are even reports in Asia of snakeheads attacking and killing humans.

The northern snakehead is extremely adaptable to various climates including cold waters, and like all snakeheads, breeds easily. Adaptability, carnivorous appetitive, lack of natural enemies and ability to transverse land, makes the northern snakehead a real threat to U.S. waterways and indigenous species of fish and amphibians. Tropical and subtropical breeds of snakeheads can pose an additional threat to warmer waterways like those in Florida and Hawaii.

Snakehead fish have been found in U.S. waters in several states, released by aquarists and freed from food markets. Many states now ban the importation of live snakeheads, however, illegal snakehead-activities have been recorded in most of these states and snakeheads are readily available over the internet.

Many people do realize the environmental impact of releasing a pet or a food fish into local waters where that fish is not native. With no natural enemies in U.S. waters, the snakehead's prolific breeding habits and hardy natures create a real potential for snakehead fish to multiply and destroy entire populations of fish and amphibians in the waters in which they are released, including many species on the endangered list. This could cause significant damage not only to the environment but also to fishing and other recreational industries that rely on the preservation of lakes and rivers.

Some snakehead species are known in the aquarium trade as tankbusters; they grow to be very large and require a substantial investment to keep, not only because of the tank size required but also because they must be fed large amounts of food daily. For this reason snakeheads are often released at some point by their owners. Hobbyists should return these fish to the aquarium trade where they can be placed with other willing aquarists, local fish stores, or public aquariums. It is illegal to release non-native fish into local waters, whether a snakehead or any other type of fish. While many species of snakeheads have earned a bad rap as a tankbuster, dwarf snakeheads are quite popular with aquarists.

The threat of snakeheads finding their way into U.S. waterways is not likely to go away anytime soon. Only strict monitoring, swift action and stiff fines can prevent what might otherwise be a potentially devastating loss to the local environment with significant economic impact.

To find out if snakeheads are legal in your state, contact your local Fish and Game Department.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a snakehead fish and where can it be found?

Snakehead fish are a group of predatory fish known for their elongated bodies, large mouths, and sharp teeth, resembling the head of a snake. Native to parts of Africa and Asia, they inhabit freshwater environments such as rivers, streams, and lakes. Some species have been introduced to other regions, where they are often considered invasive.

Why are snakehead fish considered invasive in some areas?

Snakehead fish are considered invasive in regions outside their native range because they can dominate local ecosystems. They are top-level predators with few natural enemies, which allows them to outcompete native species for food and habitat. Their presence can lead to a decline in biodiversity and disrupt the balance of aquatic ecosystems.

How do snakehead fish reproduce, and what is their growth rate?

Snakehead fish are known for their high reproductive capacity. They can spawn multiple times a year, with females releasing thousands of eggs each time. These fish grow rapidly, reaching sexual maturity quickly, which contributes to their potential to overrun ecosystems where they are introduced.

What do snakehead fish eat, and how do they impact their environment?

Snakehead fish are carnivorous and consume a diet that includes fish, crustaceans, and sometimes small mammals or birds. Their voracious appetite can lead to overpredation on native species. Additionally, their feeding habits can alter the vegetation and substrate of water bodies, further impacting the local habitat.

Are there any benefits to snakehead fish in their native habitats?

In their native habitats, snakehead fish play a crucial role as apex predators, helping to maintain the ecological balance by controlling prey populations. They are also valued as a food source for humans and have been part of traditional fishing practices for centuries in some cultures.

What measures are being taken to control invasive snakehead populations?

Efforts to control invasive snakehead populations include public awareness campaigns, regulations on import and transport, and eradication programs. In some areas, targeted fishing and removal are encouraged, while in others, barriers are constructed to prevent their spread. Biological control methods are also being researched to manage their numbers sustainably.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon119965 — On Oct 19, 2010

They have a predator, a far more dangerous predator than any others: Man.

By cougars — On Aug 24, 2010

I just watched a show about subsistence fisherman in Southeast Asia (Thailand I think) that was killed by a giant snakehead. He was spearfishing for giant snakeheads when one of these fish charged him. He must have disturbed the fish while it was watching after its fry, which causes them to go on the offensive.

He shot the charging snakhead straight through the throat, sending a spear right down the four-foot long fish’s body. This agitated the fish even more, making it charge right for his face. The fish hit him with such force that it sent the back end of the spear straight through the man's head. By the time his wife was able to pull him form the water, he was already dead.

Anyone looking to buy a snakehead fish should consider how large the species is they are purchasing. The fish are not meant to be contained in a small aquarium, and they are very damaging when released. As aplenty said, they can become an apex predator.

By aplenty — On Aug 24, 2010

Snakeheads are an invasive species and may eventually become as damaging a species as the silver carp that has inundated U.S. inland waterways. Overzealous fish mongers most likely released snakeheads into the wild for profit. Asian markets sell snakeheads for considerable amounts of money, since some Asian cultures believe that they have healing properties. The consensus amongst some experts is that they were released into the wild to make them locally available (as well as some being released as unwanted aquarium fish), increasing profit margins.

The aggressive nature of snakeheads makes them especially dangerous to fragile ecosystems. The fish will eat the local fish, and often have few or no predators. Invasive snakeheads almost instantly take the role of apex predator in their new environment.

By mcmama — On Aug 25, 2008

They have GREAT personalities and are fun to watch and have around. Google Dwarf snakeheads.

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