A Field Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore

Fish index (by name)
Fish families (by picture)
Parts of a fish
Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low

There are four main groups. Learn to recognise these potentially dangerous fish and treat them with extreme caution. See 'A Guide to the Dangerous Marine Animals of Singapore' in the Science Centre series.

Stinging fishes are equipped with sharp spines linked to venom glands usually located at the base of the spines. A sting by any one of the fishes below requires immediate medical treatment.
Scorpionfishes (family Scorpaenidae) have a row of venomous spines on their dorsal fin. Among them, the stonefish (Synanceja horrida) is probably the most feared, for its sting has been known to cause human deaths. The dorsal spines along its back are linked to glands packed with lethal venom, and even a slight brush with them can result in excruciating pain for the victim.
close-up of stonefish
Face of a deadly stonefish (Synanceja horrida)
photo: Tan Heok Hui
While walking on reef flats, please put on protective footwear and more importantly watch where you step. Avoid stepping on rocks without first checking for the stonefish which bears a strong resemblance to algae-encrusted coral rocks. Other scorpionfishes also abound on reef flats and they can also deliver a nasty sting if accidentally stepped on.

Marine catfishes of the families Ariidae and Plotosidae also come with venomous spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. Accidents can happen when the careless angler tries to remove them from the hook. For safety reasons, some anglers have even gone to the cruel extent of snapping off the spines with pliers before removing the hook from these catfishes. Rabbitfishes (family Siganidae) and scats (family Scatophagidae) also have venomous dorsal fin spines. Be careful when handling them

diagram of how stingray can sting an offending footStingrays (family Dasyatidae) are often found on sandy-muddy seabeds. Due to their habit of burying themselves in the substrate, their presence may not be easily detected. Many stingrays have two long venomous spines near the base of their tail. They have the ability to flick the tail upwards and thrust the spines forward into the offending foot when stepped on.

Biting fishes cause injury when they use their teeth on us for defence, or when they regard us as food. A few species of sharks make up the latter category, but these are apparently rare in local waters.

The more common pufferfishes (family Tetraodontidae) and porcupinefishes (family Diodontidae) are equipped with sharp, plate-like teeth which resemble a parrot's beak. Large individuals are capable of severing one's finger with a bite. Other fishes which have rows of sharp teeth and may bite out of provocation include the barracudas (family Sphyraenidae) and the moray eels (family Muraenidae). Should these be caught on a hook, extreme care should be taken when removing the hook from the fish.

The fang-blennies (genera Melacanthus and Petroscirtes) have a pair of long, curved canine teeth on their lower jaws which seem to be used for defence. When handled, they may bite, and the canine teeth of the Striped Fang-blenny (Meiacanthus grammistes) are associated with venom glands.

cartoon of fisherman fending off needlefishThe needlefishes (family Belonidae) do not bite and are generally inoffensive, but people have been killed by them. Needlefishes live near the surface and are apt to jump when disturbed or when chasing prey. With their slender and sharp beaks, any person, especially fishermen, in the path of their leaps risks getting speared.

Poisonous fishes form the third group. While many fishes can be eaten, there are some which contain toxins that can cause serious illness or even death when ingested. Pufferfishes feature highly in this category mainly because they are common and large enough to be of gastronomic interest. Pufferfish are known for producing a lethal poison called tetrodotoxin especially in their liver and ovaries. The severity of this poison varies from species to species.

Electric fishes are capable of generating electricity for navigation or for detecting and immobilising prey. Certainly this comes in useful for deterring unwanted attention as well. In Singapore, electric rays (e.g., Temera hardwickii) are sometimes encountered. One can get a very rude, but non-fatal shock when touching a live electric ray.
Coastal Marine Habitats
Fishy Trivia
Dangerous Fishes
Fishes and Man
About the guidebook
From A Guide to Common Marine Fishes of Singapore by Kelvin K P Lim and Jeffrey K Y Low
Published by the Singapore Science Centre and sponsored by BP

©Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research and Singapore Science Centre