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Related FAQs: Croakers, Drums

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/A Diversity of Aquatic Life

Drums, Croakers: High Hats and Jackknifes, Family Sciaenidae

By Bob Fenner

 Equetus punctatus

This is a vast family of some seventy genera and two hundred seventy species; most of which are more likely food fishes than ornamentals... due to size, lack of color/markings. There are some notable exceptions here in the way of some tropical West Atlantic Drums.

    About the common names; they're in reference to these fishes sound-production capacity. By stretching the muscles along their gas-air bladders, using the latter as resonators, very audible "croaking" noises are produced. I have fond auditory memories of hearing the White Sea "Bass" (yes in reality a croaker) off of Coronado  Islands southern "Five Minute Kelp", as well as noisy times in Mission Bay in San Diego with the periodic migrations of Spotfin and Yellowfin Croaker schools there.

     Distinctive traits for the family are long trailing anterior dorsal fins in many species juveniles, notch-spaced spiny and soft dorsal fin portions, and their continuous lateral lines that extend to the end of the tail.


    Found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, some in brackish and even freshwater (28 species permanently).

Some Aquarium Croakers:

Equetus acuminatus (Bloch & Schneider 1801), the High Hat. To 23 cm., 9 inches in length. Western Atlantic; North Carolina to Brazil. Found over sandy and rocky bottoms in groups as young and adults. Below: Aquarium specimens. An ideal size (three inch) individual in a cubicle and batch in a wholesalers tank, and five inch individual. At right, a seven inch adult off of St. Lucia.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Equetus lanceolatus (Linnaeus 1758), the Jackknife(fish). Tropical West Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Found in bays and deep coral reefs. To ten inches in length. Like other TWA croakers, feeds mainly on small shrimps, gastropod mollusks, crabs polychaete worms. Not as often seen as the other two species listed. Distinguished from them by a single black band starting at the tip of the dorsal and a lack of dots on the tail; and golden barring around the dark, unlike E. punctatus.  
Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Equetus punctatus (Bloch & Schneider 1801), the Spotted Drum. To 27 cm. Tropical West Atlantic. Below: Three inch individual off Cozumel, four and six inch ones in St. Lucia. At right, four and a half inch individual in St. Lucia.

Bigger PIX:
The images in this table are linked to large (desktop size) copies. Click on "framed" images to go to the larger size.

Genus Odontoscion:
Odontoscion dentex, the Reef Croaker. To 30 cm. Distinguished by black spot at the pectoral fin origins. Tropical W. Atlantic, sans Bahamas. Roatan 2016

Genus Pareques:
Pareques viola (Gilbert 1904), the Rock Croaker. To 25 cm. Panama to Peru. Costa Rica (Pacific side) 2011

Pareques sp., the Pacific Highhat. To 11 inches. Cortez to Peru. A juvenile and intermediate specimen in Puerto Vallarta 2015

Some Not-So Aquarium Croakers: An example to show a "typical" member of the family.

Pogonias cromis (Linnaeus 1758), the Black Drum. According to fishbase.org to 170 cm. and 42 kg... yes, five feet and ninety pounds. And has lived for 43 years! Found in the Western Atlantic; Nova Scotia to Argentina. One in the Florida Aquarium.

Selection of Specimens:

1) Size: Look for and pick only juveniles of a few (2-4) inches in length. Larger ones are often too beat from collection, shipping to survive long.

2) Apparent and real condition. Do wait a few days after arrival to assure the stability of the fish in question. Often they "look okay", only to die mysteriously a night or day later. Look to their paired fin origins for evidence of damage (reddening), but don't be overly concerned re damage to the dorsal. This area rapidly regenerates in healthy specimens.

3) Feeding: on the same note as above, be assured the potential purchase is feeding... on foods you have available, intend to offer.

4) Behavior/appearance: These fishes are nocturnal in the wild, and hide a good deal of the time in captivity. Healthy individuals should be moving about, under a ledge, not listing in profile.

Aquarium Care:

    The Croakers, Drums are often offered in the trade as juveniles. Due to rough handling, their shy nature and soft bodies, this group of fishes is not easily kept in captivity.

System: Something as large as possible and flat as practical, with plenty of live rock (for hiding and food production) and vigorous life-infiltrated substrate is necessary for croaker health and happiness. Don't try these fishes in new, barely landscaped, brightly lit aquariums.

Water Movement: Need not be vigorous, as these fishes move about mostly by night.


    Sciaenids are largely bottom-dwelling, night-feeding carnivores. In the wild, their diets consist mainly of benthic invertebrates and small fishes. They need to have their nutritional needs catered to in captivity, with such live, meaty offerings provided near or during lights out time. Starvation ranks very high as sources of mortality for these species in aquariums.


    The aquarium species and a few of the commercial food and game fish species of croakers have been spawned and reared in captivity (see Bibliography). All species produce pelagic eggs.


    Most Croakers are or get too large (and ugly) for aquarium use/interest. What's more, even the good-looking species too often live up to their common name and "croak" easily if/when collected as adults. One needs to study and prepare to successfully keep the popular High Hats and Drums... providing a large system with plenty of cover, and carefully training small specimens on live foods to fresh/dead fare.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Bellomy, Mildred D. 1973. Ribbonfishes. Marine Aquarist 4(3):73.

Hemdal, Jay. 1989. High Hats. TFH 5/89.

Moe, Martin. 1975. Rearing the Black Drum. Marine Aquarist 6(3):75.

Young, Forrest. 1988. The Florida Scene (column). Discussion of efforts to culture, hybridize High Hats. Marine Fish Monthly 3(5):88.


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