Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce

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A school of herring, Harengula sp., above a seagrass bed. Photo by L. Holly Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

Species Name: Harengula clupeola Cuvier, 1829
Common Name: False Herring
False Pilchard
Synonymy: Alosa bishopi Müller & Troschel, 1847
Clupea clupeola Cuvier, 1829
Clupea macrophthalma Ranzani, 1842
Harengula macrophthalma Ranzani, 1842
Harengula latulus Valenciennes, 1847

    Kingdom Phylum/Division Class: Order: Family: Genus:
    Animalia Chordata Actinopterygii Clupeiformes Clupeidae Harengula

    Species Description

    The false herring, Harengula clupeola, is one of several schooling bait fishes in Florida belonging to the family Clupeidae. Species from this group are characterized by several features, including: small, fusiform to subcylindrical bodies; pelvic scutes; and a terminal mouth with a short, deep lower jaw (Munroe & Nizinski 2002). The body of H. clupeola is moderately compressed and silvery in color with a dark greenish back (Robins et al. 1986). A pale yellow or orange spot is present near the top bone of the gill cover, called the opercle. Tips of the caudal fin may be dusky in color (Munroe & Nizinski 2002). Unlike other Harengula species, the dorsal fin is a similar coloration throughout, the jaw lacks a yellowish tint, and the scales are not easily shed (see “Potentially Misidentified Species” below). A series of ventral scutes (29-32, usually 30-31) line the abdomen on both sides of the pelvic fin, which bears 7 branched fin rays. Along with the dorsal fin, the pelvic fin is slightly anterior to the midpoint of the body.

    Potentially Misidentified Species

    Two other species of Harengula are present in local Florida waters: the red-ear sardine, H. humeralis; and the scaled sardine, H. jaguana. As the name implies, the redear sardine is distinguished by a reddish spot near the opercle. The jaw is yellowish, the upper body is marked with 3-4 dark yellowish broken streaks or dotted lines, the tip of the dorsal fin is dusky, and the scales are easily shed (Robins et al. 1986; Munroe & Nizinski 2002). The ventral scutes number 25-29, usually 27-28. The scaled sardine is similar to the redear sardine, but with unbroken and more inconspicuous lines on the back of the body (Robins et al. 1986; Munroe & Nizinski 2002). The opercle is usually marked with a small dark spot lacking orange or reddish coloration, which is occasionally repeated near the shoulder. The belly is deep and lined with 28-31 ventral scutes.


    Regional Occurrence

    The range of H. clupeola extends from southern Florida through the Bahamas and Caribbean south to Brazil (Robins et al. 1986; Munroe & Nizinski 2002). Small schools are found in a variety of coastal habitats, from brackish estuaries to nearshore and coral reefs (Randall 1967; Robins et al. 1986; Ortaz et al. 1996; Munroe & Nizinski 2002; Félix et al. 2007). Studies have shown that larger individuals move offshore to feed and reproduce, while juveniles often occupy protected estuarine habitats such as mangroves and seagrass beds (Ortaz et al. 1996; Félix et al. 2007).

    Indian River Lagoon (IRL) Distribution

    Little information is available concerning the distribution of the false herring in the IRL, but schools can be found throughout the lagoon on submerged tidal flats, in seagrass beds and salt marshes, among mangrove roots and in shallow nearshore waters off nearby sandy beaches.


    Age, Size, Lifespan

    The maximum recorded length for false herring is 17 cm, although most adult specimens measure only about 9 cm (Munroe & Nizinski 2002). Lifespan varies with environmental conditions and other factors.


    Detailed abundance records for H. clupeola populations within the IRL are scarce. However, false herring often form several small schools that contribute to the overall abundance of the species within its native range. Surveys of coastal fishes in southern Brazil revealed that H. clupeola accounted for over 42% of all catch within the surf zone (Félix et al. 2007).

    Reproduction & Embryology

    Other than reported offshore spawning (see 'Regional Occurrence' above), little information is available concerning the reproduction and embryology of H. clupeola. However, laboratory studies have been conducted on eggs and larvae of the related scaled sardine, H. jaguana, and it is likely that the two species share similar developmental processes. Eggs of H. jaguana ,1.6 to 1.8 mm in diameter, were collected from populations in south Florida (Houde et al. 1974). Larvae measuring about 2.4 mm and bearing a large yolk sac emerged from the eggs within 24 hours post-fertilization. After about 48 hours, the yolk sac was absorbed and the larvae began to actively feed on plankton. Juvenile and adult characteristics developed when larvae reached a length of about 22-24 mm. Concurrent studies by Houde et al. (1974) suggested that spawning occurs at night and extends from February through July near Miami, Florida. It is possible that spawning seasons are abbreviated for false herring populations in and around the IRL, where water temperatures may fluctuate seasonally on a larger scale than those in south Florida.


    No information is available at this time


    Trophic Mode

    Like many small schooling fishes, false herring are nocturnal planktivores (Randall 1967; Ortaz et al. 1996; Munroe & Nizinski 2002). Once individuals begin to feed as larvae, H. clupeola prey mainly on large numbers of copepods, but also ingest crab and shrimp larvae, pteropods, polychaete worms and fish eggs (e.g. Randall 1967).


    Gut content studies have revealed that H. clupeola is preyed upon by a variety of fishes, including: tunas of the genus Euthynnus; the lizardfish, Synodus foetens; the great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda; the Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus; the bar jack, Caranx ruber; and the cero, Scomberomorus regalis (Randall 1967; Fréon et al. 1993; Cruz-Escalona et al. 2005). Additional fish species, coastal birds and some marine mammals likely consume H. clupeola as part of their diet.

    Schooling is a common mechanism for small fishes like the false herring to reduce the probability of predation by aquatic predators. Fréon et al. (1993) found that H. clupeola form schools of up to 100,000. Depending on the nature of the threat, the fishes may vary the density, size, shape and speed of the school to confuse predators or allow some individuals to retreat.

    Associated Species

    Although there are no obligate associations documented between the bonefish and other species, A. vulpes is commonly found alongside organisms from the various coastal marine and estuarine habitats in which it resides. For more extensive information on these ecosystems and their associated species found in and around the IRL, please visit Habitats of the IRL.


    No information is available at this time


    Cruz-Escalona, VH, Peterson, MS, Campos-Dávila, L & M Zetina-Rejón. 2005. Feeding habits and trophic morphology of inshore lizardfish (Synodus foetens) on the central continental shelf off Veracruz, Gulf of Mexico. J. Appl. Ichthyol. 21: 525-530.

    Félix, FC, Spach, HL, Moro, PS, Schwarz Jr., R, Santos, C, Hackradt, CW & M Hostim-Silva. 2007. Utilization patterns of surf zone inhabiting fish from beaches in Southern Brazil. Pan-Amer. J. Aquat. Sci. 2: 27-39.

    Fréon, P, Gerlotto, F & M Soria. 1993. Variability of Harengula spp. School reactions to boats or predators in shallow water. ICES Mar. Sci. Symp. 196: 30-35.

    Houde, ED, Richards, WJ & VP Saksena. 1974. Description of eggs and larvae of scaled sardine, Harengula jaguana. Fish. Bull. 72: 1106-1122.

    Munroe, TA & MS Nizinski. 2002. Clupeidae. pp. 804-821. In: The living marine resources of the Western Central Atlantic. Volume 2: Bony fishes part 1 (Acipenseridae to Grammatidae). Carpenter KE (Ed.). FAO species identification guide for fishery purposes and American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists special publication no. 5. FAO, Rome. pp. 601-1374.

    Ortaz, M, Rocha, ME & JM Posada. 1996. Food habits of the sympatric fishes Harengula humeralis and H. clupeola (Clupeidae) in the Archipelago de Los Roques National Park, Venezuela. Carib. J. Sci. 32: 26-32.

    Randall, JE. 1967. Food habits of reef fishes of the West Indies. Stud. Trop. Oceanogr. 5: 665-847.

    Robins CR, Ray GC, and J Douglas. 1986. A Field Guide to Atlantic Coast Fishes. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. 354 pp.

Report by: LH Sweat, Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce
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Page last updated: 28 September 2010

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