The sheepshead fish is a deep-bodied, compressed marine fish with sharp dorsal spines. The fish commonly reaches 10-20 inches, but can grow to be as large as 35 inches in some cases! It has a hard mouth and stubby teeth that bear a striking resemblance to human teeth.
One glance at a picture of a sheepshead fish might make you assume this fish has stolen a sailor’s lost pair of dentures from the sea floor! Yes, there is a fish whose teeth are creepily similar to humans.
The sheepshead fish is a deep-bodied, compressed marine fish with sharp dorsal spines. The fish commonly reaches 10-20 inches, but can sometimes grow to be as large as 35 inches! Before we discuss the unusual chompers of this quirky marine creature, let’s learn a bit about its appearance, anatomy and habitat.
Sheepshead fish facts
This deep-bodied flat fish is commonly found in North and South America, usually weighing around 21.2 lbs (9.6 kg) and reaching 91 cm (35.8 inches) in length.
The term ‘sheepshead’ may actually refer to a number of things, including a few other types of fish. However, in this article, we’re only considering the species most commonly referred to as the sheepshead: Archosargus probatocephalus.
The sheepshead has limited commercial value, but it’s particularly well-known for possessing teeth that look incredibly similar to ours!
The back of the sheepshead is elevated behind its head, which is sloping and deep in profile. The sheepshead has a short snout with a mouth that is nearly horizontal and inferior. Its scales are finely serrated and it has sharp dorsal spines. Its body color is usually green-yellow or gray in color, and marked with 5-7 vertical black bars. It’s generally seen that the anal, ventral and dorsal fins are black or gray, while the pectoral and caudal fins have a more greenish hue.
Sheepshead fish habitat
Sheepshead fish can be found on the Gulf and the Atlantic coasts of the United States.
This fish is found from Cape Cod, Massachusetts south through Florida (the greatest concentration of the sheepshead fish is found here) and the Gulf of Mexico, all the way down to Brazil.
Sheepshead are a euryhaline species, meaning that they have been collected from waters where the salinity ranged from 0-35 PPT (parts per thousand). They stay fairly close to the shore, feeding on shelled creatures when not spawning.
They thrive well in brackish waters, especially at the confluence of rain water runoff with salty estuaries. Because of their distinct feeding preference, sheepshead are vulnerable to extreme environmental fluctuations. Their tolerance to pollution and a reduced oxygen level is particularly low and they tend to leave water bodies that get polluted. For example, in Brooklyn New York, there is a bay called Sheepshead Bay named after this fish, but the namesake fish have deserted this bay due to an increase in its pollution level.
Adult sheepshead fish prefer habitats with some amount of topographic relief and are also commonly spotted near oyster reefs, breakwaters, muddy shallows, wrecks, piers, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the sheepshead fish is not a truly migratory fish, they tend to move to offshore spawning grounds when the water temperature dips in late fall and winter.
Sheepshead fish teeth
One of the most striking characteristics of the sheepshead fish is its teeth, which are amazingly similar to those we have in our mouth!
Take a look at the picture below:
As you can see, the anterior (front side) teeth of the sheepshead are incisor-like, while the posterior (backside) molar teeth are set further back. Sharp and thick teeth begin to appear when a sheepshead fish is just 4.5 mm long, and once the fish grows to about 15 mm long, all the incisors appear. At the same time, its back teeth develop into adult molars.
There are two rows of molars on the lower jaw and three rows on the upper jaw. This heavy dentition allows sheepshead fish to easily crush and grind the shelled creatures that these fish prefer to feed on.
As fascinating as it is to see a set of ‘human teeth’ on a fish, it’s a bit weird… right?
Sheepshead fish food
Sheepshead fish are omnivorous and thus have a highly diverse diet. They can devour almost any type of organic matter that can be found at the bottom of the sea floor, or even from vertical hard surfaces, including plants. These diverse feeders are known to consume small vertebrates, invertebrates, and plant material. Some studies have found that they feed on over 100 different species!
A team of researchers in Mississippi discovered that 5-15 inch long sheepshead fish were capable of eating mollusks. As they grew larger, they moved on to other delicacies, including crabs, worms, fish and other crustaceans. Interestingly, when sea grasses and algae were in wide supply, sheepshead fish fed heavily on them.
The diet of sheepshead fish does vacillate with location, weather, and availability of food. Although mollusks are pretty much a staple and are consumed almost throughout the year, sheepshead fish preferred devouring fish during the spring, whereas in hot and arid summer, they preferred eating plants and detritus. During spring, fall and winter, sheepshead fish liked to dine on polychaete worms.
Many studies suggest that sheepshead play an important role in maintaining marine ecological balance. They especially help in regulating fauna on submerged hard surfaces, such as immobile barnacles, or species that crawl or swim near the surface. Due to their predilection to consume species that are in abundance, sheepshead fish provide a key service, preserving the biodiversity of the water body.
Importance to humans
Sheepshead fish are admired by food connoisseurs for their fine white flesh and mild palatable taste, although it is challenging to clean and cook the fish due to its heavy scales and strong spines. It is sold both fresh and frozen and can be prepared by broiling, microwaving and baking. Although the meat yield from a sheepshead fish is low, its taste is firm and flavorful.