Based on our seine surveys along the beaches of most estuaries in the Florida panhandle, this is one of the most abundant fish in our bays. No matter the time of year, or the location, estuarine seining usually includes numerous individuals of this group. It is very apparent the importance they play in the food web of our local bays.
Those visiting and recreating in our waters probably are not aware of the numerous individuals of this fish schooling all around them. They are almost transparent and are often called “glass minnows” because of this. So, you do not really see them – even if you are snorkeling. But take a small hand net or a seine net and you will quickly discover they are there – and a lot of them.
They are small three-inch fish that are long, and tube shaped with forked (lunate) tails. Their bodies have a slight yellow-green appearance on the dorsal side, but much is a whiteish in color or transparent all together. They do have a broad silver stripe that runs laterally along their body and is where they get their common name “silversides”. Anchovies also have this “silverside” and are found in the same locations but differ from the silversides in that they have a more “shark looking snout” and only one dorsal fin, compared to the two dorsal fins found on the silversides.
It is apparent this whiteish, transparent color and silver stripe are effective in avoiding predation. Again, you and I do not see them while we are snorkeling. But is also apparent that many are consumed due to the large number you find in their schools. I have found from my seining surveys this fish is often collected on days when no other species are. The heat of summer, the cool of winter, during and after storms, high humidity, it does not matter – I always captured them. I have captured them over sandy beaches, over seagrasses, near jetties, and in the muck and mire of salt marshes. They are literally everywhere. I also capture them more frequently than I do anchovies, suggesting their importance to the health of the estuarine food web. It is one of the first fish my students learned to identify because of how frequently we caught them.
In the northern Gulf, there are two species found in local estuaries – the rough silverside and the tidewater silverside. Hoese and Moore1 do report a third species similar to the tidewater silverside that is more tolerant of saltwater.
The Rough Silverside (Membras martinica) is called so because their body scales are serrated and are “rough to the touch”. This is when you slide your fingers from the back towards the head, your fingers will feel the serrations and it is rough to the touch.
The Tidewater Silverside (Menidia beryllina) is smooth to the touch because their scales lack serrations. Other than that, these two fish look very similar. Tidewater silversides seem to be restricted to the shorelines and do not venture to the extended grassbeds off the beach. The third species mentioned M. peninsulae, is reported to prefer salinities at and above 19 ppt, where the tidewater prefers lower salinities. There is little else mentioned to distinguish these two, but I have seen both names reported in the scientific literature from researchers sampling our bay.
Both species of silversides have a large biogeographic distribution. Ranging from the colder waters of New York, all along the eastern seaboard, and the entire Gulf of Mexico.
You may not see them often, but know they are an important part of the estuarine ecology.
Hoese, H.D., Moore, R. H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters. Texas A&M Press, College Station TX. Pp. 327.