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Anchovy: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Dive into the intriguing world of anchovies, small fish that play a significant role in marine ecosystems and human cuisine alike. Anchovies, known for their salty taste and distinct aroma, are tiny schooling fish that inhabit various parts of the world’s oceans.

This article delves into the life of the anchovy, covering their biology, behavior, and impact on their environment and human society.

The Anchovy at a Glance


Superclass:Osteichthyes (Bony fish)
Genus:Various (Including Engraulis, Anchoa, etc.)
Species:Various (Including E. encrasicolus, A. mitchilli, etc.)

Essential Information

Average Size:1.5 to 5 inches (4 to 13 centimeters)
Average Weight:0.09 to 0.11 ounces (2.5 to 3 grams)
Average Lifespan:3 to 5 years
Geographical Range:Temperate waters worldwide
Conservation Status:Most species are either Least Concern or Data Deficient (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

The term ‘anchovy’ encompasses around 144 species across 17 genera within the family Engraulidae. The European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) and the Peruvian anchovy (Engraulis ringens) are among the most commercially significant species. Differences between species often involve size, preferred habitat, and geographical distribution.



Anchovies are small, slender fish that typically measure between 1.5 to 5 inches (4 to 13 centimeters) in length, depending on the species. They exhibit a silver sheen along their bodies, complemented by a darker blue or green hue along the back.

The snout is pointed and the mouth large, with a lower jaw that juts out slightly. Their single dorsal fin is located mid-body, and their tail fin is deeply forked, giving them a streamlined appearance for swift swimming.

Sexual dimorphism is minimal in anchovies. Both males and females share similar sizes and colors, making it challenging to differentiate them through external features alone.

Habitat and Distribution

Anchovies are primarily marine fish, with a broad geographical distribution that spans the temperate waters of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Some species, such as the European and Peruvian anchovies, are found in the eastern Atlantic and Pacific oceans, respectively. Others, like the bay anchovy (Anchoa mitchilli), inhabit the western Atlantic.

Anchovies typically prefer nearshore environments and are often found in upwelling areas where nutrient-rich waters foster the growth of large populations of plankton, their primary food source. Some species of anchovies can also be found in brackish or even freshwater environments.

Anchovy head


Anchovies are schooling fish, meaning they live and move in large groups as a survival strategy against predators. This social structure provides a form of protection; the sheer number of individuals in a school can confuse a predator, and the collective motion of the school can create an illusion of a larger organism.

Anchovies are typically diurnal, with their activity levels peaking during the day. At night, they often retreat to deeper waters, returning to the surface as daylight breaks.

Communication between anchovies is not well-studied but is thought to involve visual cues and body movements, given their highly coordinated schooling behavior.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Anchovies are filter feeders and are primarily omnivorous. Their diet largely consists of plankton, including both phytoplankton (plant plankton) and zooplankton (animal plankton).

They swim with their mouths open, filtering the water for food particles. Their gill rakers—long, slender structures located in their gills—act like a sieve, catching plankton as the water is expelled.


Anchovies, due to their small size and abundance, form a crucial part of the food web in their ecosystems.

They are preyed upon by a wide array of predators, including larger fish species like tuna and salmon, seabirds, marine mammals like seals and whales, and even humans.

The mortality rate is generally high for young anchovies, largely due to predation and environmental factors.

Anchovies at a market

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Anchovies reproduce through a process called spawning, where females release their eggs and males fertilize them in the open water. This usually occurs in warmer months when food availability is high.

Female anchovies can produce thousands of eggs in each spawning event, which float in the water and hatch within two days, depending on the water temperature.

Newly hatched anchovies are larval and must survive on their own from the moment they hatch, feeding on microscopic algae and growing rapidly.

The average lifespan of an anchovy in the wild is about 4-5 years, though this can vary significantly depending on the species and environmental conditions.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of anchovies varies by species, but many are classified as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List due to their wide distribution and high population numbers.

However, some local populations may face threats from overfishing, habitat degradation, and climate change, which can alter water temperatures and food availability.

Efforts to conserve anchovy populations generally focus on sustainable fishing practices, including quota systems and seasonal closures to protect spawning populations.

The maintenance of healthy marine ecosystems is also vital to support the plankton that anchovies feed on. These efforts often require international cooperation, given the migratory nature of many anchovy species.

Fun Facts

  1. Anchovies as Pizza Topping: Anchovies are a popular pizza topping in many parts of the world. Despite their divisive taste, their strong, salty flavor adds a unique touch to many dishes.
  2. Tiny Titans: Despite their small size, anchovies play a significant role in marine ecosystems. They serve as a critical food source for a variety of sea creatures, including larger fish, sea birds, and marine mammals.
  3. Schools in Session: Anchovies are schooling fish. They swim in large groups, which can include millions of individual fish. This behavior not only helps them avoid predators but also plays a vital role in their feeding strategy.
  4. Lights, Camera, Action: Anchovies have made a cultural impact too. In the animated film “The Penguins of Madagascar,” the penguins are scared of an operation known as “Badgering the Anchovies.”
  5. Change of Taste: Fresh and cured anchovies taste quite different. Fresh ones have a mild flavor, while cured or preserved anchovies have a strong, salty taste.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are anchovies so salty?

The salty taste of anchovies often comes from the curing process, not the fish itself. They are typically preserved in salt or oil, which gives them their characteristic strong and salty flavor.

Can anchovies be eaten raw?

Yes, anchovies can be eaten raw, and in fact, they are a key ingredient in some types of sushi. However, they are more commonly eaten cured or cooked.

What’s the difference between anchovies and sardines?

While they are often confused, anchovies and sardines are different species of fish. Sardines are larger and have a less intense flavor compared to the strong, salty taste of anchovies.

Where can I find anchovies?

Anchovies are found in oceans worldwide but are particularly abundant in the Mediterranean and off the coasts of South America.

Are anchovies threatened by overfishing?

While certain anchovy populations may be locally affected by overfishing, most species are not currently considered threatened due to their vast numbers and wide distribution.

Do anchovies have bones?

Yes, anchovies have tiny bones. However, these are often eaten because they are soft and virtually undetectable when the fish is cured or cooked.

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