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Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus: the most abundant species of fish in the world.
Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus: the most abundant species of fish in the world.

A fish is a poikilothermic (cold-blooded) water-dwelling vertebrate with gills. There are over 25,000 species of fish, making them the most diverse group of vertebrates. Taxonomically, fish are a paraphyletic group whose exact relationships are much debated; a common division is into the jawless fish (class Agnatha, 75 species including lampreys and hagfish), the cartilaginous fish (class Chondrichthyes, 800 species including sharks and rays), with the remainder classed as bony fish (class Osteichthyes).

Fish come in different sizes, from the 16 m (51 ft) whale shark to a 7 mm (just over 1/4 of an inch) long stout infantfish. Many types of aquatic animals named "fish", such as jellyfish and cuttlefish, are not true fish. Other sea dwelling creatures, like dolphins, are actually mammals.

Certain species of fish maintain elevated body temperatures to varying degrees. Endothermic teleosts (bony fishes) are all in the suborder Scombroidei and include the billfishes, tunas, and one species of "primitive" mackerel (Gasterochisma melampus). All sharks in the family Lamnidae – shortfin mako, long fin mako, white, porbeagle, and salmon shark – are known to have the capacity for endothermy, and evidence suggests the trait exists in family Alopiidae (thresher sharks). The degree of endothermy varies from the billfish, which warm only their eyes and brain, to bluefin tuna and porbeagle sharks who maintain body temperatures elevated in excess of 20 °C above ambient water temperatures. See also gigantothermy. Endothermy, though metabolically costly, is thought to provide advantages such as increased contractile force of muscles, higher rates of central nervous system processing, and higher rates of digestion.

Fish ecology

Fish can be found in almost all large bodies of water in salt or brackish or fresh water, at depths from just below the surface to several thousand meters. However, hyper-saline lakes like the Great Salt Lake do not support fishes. Some species of fish have been specially bred to be kept and displayed in an aquarium, and can survive in the home environment.

Catching fish for the purpose of food or sport is known as fishing. The annual yield from all fisheries worldwide is about 100 million tonnes. Overfishing is a threat to many species of fish. On May 15, 2003, the journal Nature reported that all large oceanic fish species worldwide had been so systematically over caught that fewer than 10% of 1950 levels remained. [1] Particularly imperiled were sharks, Atlantic cod, Bluefin tuna, and Pacific sardines. The authors recommended immediate drastic cutbacks in fish catches and reservation of ocean habitats worldwide.

Fish as food

Fish are an important source of food in many cultures. Other water-dwelling animals such as mollusks, crustaceans, and shellfish are often called "fish" when used as food. For more details, see Fish (food).

Centropristis striata
Centropristis striata


Fish are a paraphyletic group: that is, any clade containing all fish also contains the tetrapods, which are not fish. Fish are classified into the following major groups:

  • Conodonta
  • Hyperoartia
  • Pteraspidomorphi (early jawless fish)
  • Thelodonti
  • Anaspida
  • Cephalaspidomorphi (early jawless fish)
    • Galeaspida
    • Pituriaspida
    • Osteostraci
  • Gnathostomata (jawed vertebrates)
    • Placodermi
    • Chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish)
    • Acanthodii
    • Osteichthyes (bony fish)
      • Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish)
      • Sarcopterygii (lobe-finned fish)
        • Actinistia ( coelacanths)
        • Dipnoi (lungfish)

For a fuller treatment of classification, see the vertebrate article.

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