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Do You Know the Difference?

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Northern Snakehead

A graphic displaying the identifying features of a northern snakehead fish


Similar-Appearing Native Species

A graphic displaying the identifying features of a bowfin

A graphic displaying the identifying features of an American Eel

A graphic displaying the identifying features of a sea lamprey


Know the Facts

Snakehead Fish

  • As a family, snakeheads are native to parts of Asia and Africa. The northern snakehead is native to China, and possibly Korea and Russia.
  • Typically found in a wide variety of habitats
  • Northern snakeheads grow to a maximum length of about 33 inches
  • Generally tan in appearance, with dark brown mottling; body somewhat elongated; long dorsal fin; jaws contain numerous canine-like teeth (similar to pike or pickerel)
  • Capable of breathing air using an air bladder that works as a primitive lung (not found in most fish)
  • Able to hibernate in cracks and crevices during cold temperatures and to go dormant in the mud during droughts
  • Voracious top-level predator, eating mostly fish, but also eats other aquatic wildlife and frogs
  • Capable of moving short distances on land using its pectoral fins; can live out of water for as many as three days
  • Favored as a food fish throughout southeast Asia; also believed to have curative powers. Also sold in the aquarium trade.
  • Four species have been found in the U.S., in eight states, probably the result of releases from personal aquariums or to develop local food sources
  • No natural predators in the U.S.

Similar-Appearing Native Fishes

Bowfin

  • In Virginia, native to the Coastal Plain and possibly lower Piedmont; occasionally found in other parts of the state
  • Typically associated with swamps and sluggish open marsh-fringed rivers; found in both shallower and deeper waters in Virginia
  • Grows to a maximum length of about 32 inches
  • Generally tan-olive in appearance, with dark olive reticulation; body somewhat elongated; long dorsal fin; bony scales; jaws contain small canine and peglike teeth; black spot at the base of the tail (more prominent in males)
  • Capable of breathing surface air using an air bladder as a lung (not found in most fish)
  • Able to withstand periodic droughts by going dormant in the mud
  • Nocturnal, but most active at dusk and dawn; predatory generalist eating fish, aquatic invertebrates and frogs

American Eel

  • Native to most of Virginia, as far west as the New River system; not known from southwestern Virginia
  • Typically associated with a range of habitats, including mountain streams, warm lakes, estuaries and the ocean
  • Grows to a maximum length of approximately 40 inches
  • Ranging from olive-brown to yellow-olive to almost black in appearance, with silver sheen on lower side; body very elongated; no pelvic fin; long dorsal and anal fins, converging with the caudal fin to create the appearance of one continuous fin; jaws with small teeth

Sea Lamprey

  • Native to coastal Virginia; migrates to spawn
  • Grows to 12-20 inches in length; eel-like body
  • Circle-shaped mouth full of teeth
  • Dark brown to black backs and light yellow to pale brown bellies; large reddish eyes

Why Should We Care?

Exotic species like snakeheads may have significant impacts in the U.S., including:

  • Impacts to local fish populations through predation or displacement and competition for food; disruption of native aquatic systems
  • Transmission of parasites or diseases, including those affecting humans
  • Potential impacts on local economies dependent on fishing or related resources

What Can You Do?

  • If you find a snakehead fish, kill it and put it on ice, then contact the Department at (804) 367-2925.
  • If you can no longer care for an exotic pet, contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at (804) 367-1000 or dgifweb@dgif.virginia.gov for assistance.