Engraulis mordaxnorthern anchovy(Also: Bay anchovy; Californian anchoveta; Pinhead; Rainbow smelt)

Geographic Range

Northern anchovy are found off the west coast of North America, from Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, Canada, to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, Mexico, and in the Gulf of California. ("Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986)


Engraulis mordax is a neritic, epipelagic species that favors areas of coastal upwelling. Larvae can be found from 0 to 50 meters in depth, and adults are commonly found between 70 m and 200 m in depth. Larvae, juveniles, and adults can tolerate water temperatures between 8 and 25 degrees Celsius. ("Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986)

  • Range depth
    0 to 200 m
    0.00 to 656.17 ft
  • Average depth
    73 m
    239.50 ft

Physical Description

Northern anchovies are small, slightly compressed and have large, inferior mouths. They are an iridescent bluish-green on the dorsum and shiny silver along the ventral surface. Adults have a faint silver stripe along their side. The insertion point of the anal fin can be used to distinguish northern anchovies from other anchovy species, as it inserts immediately posterior to the dorsal fin. Average adult size is 9 g in mass and 7 cm in length, and individuals rarely exceed 10 g in mass and 9 cm in length. Sexual dimorphism has not been reported in this species. (Hewitt, 1985; Miller and Lea, 1972)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    10 (high) g
    0.35 (high) oz
  • Average mass
    9 g
    0.32 oz
  • Range length
    9.0 (high) cm
    3.54 (high) in
  • Average length
    7.0 cm
    2.76 in


During the larval period and throughout development, integument and lateral line system of northern anchovies develop gradually. Their eyes migrate from a binocular orientation to the sides of the head, and the digestive tract gradually becomes able to digest proteins. The swim bladder develops expansive capability via muscle differentiation, and trunk musculature differentiates and develops into two muscle fiber types. Organs development in northern anchovies can be characterized as initial differentiation followed by continued development of specialized cell and tissue types. A complete review of embryological development is provided in O'Connel, 1981. (O'Connel, 1981)


Northern anchovies are promiscuous, as both sexes spawn indiscriminately with multiple partners during breeding season. (Hunter and Goldberg, 1979; Miller and Lea, 1972)

Northern anchovies breed during late winter and spring, however, some research suggests that they spawn throughout the year, with peak activity occurring from February to April. Spawning usually occurs within 95 km of the coast, but has been recorded up to 480 km offshore. There are approximately 574 eggs per gram, and fertilized eggs hatch 2 to 4 days after spawning. Northern anchovies perform seasonal migrations, usually moving to deeper, offshore waters during winter, and returning to shallow, coastal waters for spring. Males and females become sexually mature at about 2 years of age. (Hewitt, 1985; Picquelle and Hewitt, 1983)

  • Breeding season
    Throughout the year, with peaks between February to April.
  • Range number of offspring
    20,000 to 30,000
  • Range time to hatching
    2 to 4 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    2 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    2 years

Northern anchovies are broadcast spawners, and therefore, parental care is nonexistent in this species.

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement


Little information is available concerning the average lifespan of northern anchovies. In the wild, most live between 4 and 7 years, with an average lifespan of 5 years.

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    7 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    4 to 7 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    5 years


Northern anchovies create large schools, which aids in antipredator defense and finding prey. Adult northern anchovies typically attack prey only once and rarely make a second attempt. Swimming and feeding behavior is dependent on a number of different factors including temperature, developmental stage, and where they are distributed in the water column. Northern anchovies perform seasonal migrations, moving to deeper, offshore waters during winter, and returning to shallow, coastal waters for spring. (Picquelle and Hewitt, 1983)

Home Range

Engraulis mordax is a mobile, schooling, pelagic species, and does noes not maintain a home range. ("Engraulis mordax (Girard, 1856)", 2011; "Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986; Miller and Lea, 1972)

Communication and Perception

Little is known of communication and perception in this species. However, northern anchovies use vision and chemoreception through nares and the lateral line system to perceive their environment and communicate with conspecifics. (Picquelle and Hewitt, 1983)

Food Habits

Northern anchovies feed upon krill, copepods, and decapod larvae, and collect food via filter feeding and active predation. When filter feeding, water and zooplankton pass through its large gaping mouth as it swims. Water passing over the gills is strained through long, finely-separated gill rakers, which collect particulate organic matter, phytoplankton, and zooplankton. Apart from nonselective filter feeding, northern anchovies have also been observed 'pecking' at larger prey. Adult northern anchovies typically attack prey only once and rarely make a second attempt in the event that prey escape. ("Engraulis mordax (Girard, 1856)", 2011)

Upon sighting prey, northern anchovy larvae assumes an S-shaped posture and advances toward the prey by sculling its pectoral fins and undulating the fin fold, while maintaining the S-posture. Larval anchovies maintain prey in the center of their visual field via slight adjustments in the position of its head and body. When prey are within striking distance, a larva opens its mouth and straightens its body. This causes the body to project forward, and the prey is ingested. The entire process takes about 1 to 2 seconds. (Baldwin, 2010; Picquelle and Hewitt, 1983)


Northern anchovy larvae, while transparent, fall prey to a number of invertebrate and vertebrate planktivores. As juveniles they acquire pelagic coloration, and are extremely vulnerable to piscivores such as albacore and chub mackeral. A wide variety of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals feed on northern anchovies. They form large schools for protection against predators, and their coloration may help camouflage them from potential predators. Humans are probably the most significant predator of northern anchovies. ("Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Northern anchovies are an important primary and secondary consumer within the epipelagic food web of the Pacific coast. It is a critical source of food for a great variety of organisms, such as larger fish, marine mammals, and marine birds. Larvae are an important component of the spring ichthyoplankton assemblage in coastal California. Northern anchovies are host to numerous endoparasites, including protists (e.g., myxosporidian protozoan), flatworms (e.g., hemiurid trematodes and didymozoid trematodes, and digenean flatworms), and roundworms (e.g., Anisakis and Hysterothylacium). ("Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986; Baldwin, 2010)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Northern anchovies support a number of commercial fisheries and live-bait fisheries in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They are commonly consumed by humans and are sold live to anglers as bait. They are often converted into feed for fish hatcheries and farms and are a source of industrial fish meal and oil. From 1916 to 1967, catches averaged 325 metric tons per year. Total population biomass for northern anchovies was estimated to be 432,000 tons in 1994. Currently, California does not have an active fishery for this species. ("Northern Anchovy (Engraulis mordax)", 2011; "Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy", 1986)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Engraulis mordax on humans.

Conservation Status

Based on research by California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), northern anchovy landings and exploitation rates since 1983 have been decreasing. While biomass estimates are unavailable for recent years, CDFG believes the stock is currently stable at a modest biomass level. Northern anchovies are classified as a species of least concern on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Although current populations are thought to be stable, overfishing presents a potential threat to the longterm persistence of this species. (Bergin and Jacobson, 2001)


Tasha Davis (author), San Diego Mesa College, Eriq DelaTorre (author), San Diego Mesa College, Aaron Raub (author), San Diego Mesa College, Paul Detwiler (editor), San Diego Mesa College, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


a method of feeding where small food particles are filtered from the surrounding water by various mechanisms. Used mainly by aquatic invertebrates, especially plankton, but also by baleen whales.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


active during the night


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae. (Compare to zooplankton.)


an animal that mainly eats plankton


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)


2011. "Engraulis mordax (Girard, 1856)" (On-line). Accessed May 05, 2011 at http://www.fao.org/fishery/species/2107/en.

2011. "Northern Anchovy (Engraulis mordax)" (On-line). Accessed May 15, 2011 at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/fishwatch/species/anchovy.htm.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (Pacific Southwest): Northern anchovy. Biological Report 82(11.50). Lafayette, Louisiana: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 1986. Accessed May 05, 2011 at http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/wdb/pub/species_profiles/82_11-050.pdf.

Baldwin, R. 2010. Using Parasite Community Data and Population Genetics for Assessing Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax) Population Structure Along the West Coast of North America. Dissertation: Oregon State University, 1/1: 1–207. Accessed May 24, 2011 at http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/18814/Rebecca%20Baldwin%20PhD%20disseration%20OSU%202010.pdf?sequence=11.

Bergin, D., L. Jacobson. 2001. "http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/status/northern_anchovy.pdf" (On-line). California's Living Marine Resources: A Status Report. Accessed May 24, 2011 at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/status/northern_anchovy.pdf.

Hewitt, R. 1985. The 1984 spawning biomass of the northern anchovy. CalCOFI Report, XXVII: 16-24. Accessed May 11, 2011 at http://calcofi.ucsd.edu/newhome/publications/CalCOFI_Reports/v27/pdfs/Vol_27_Bindman.pdf.

Hunter, R., S. Goldberg. 1979. Spawning incidence and batch fecundity in northern anchovy, Engraulis mordax. Fishery Bulletin, 77 No. 3: 641-652. Accessed May 11, 2011 at http://swfsc.noaa.gov/publications/CR/1980/8036.PDF.

Miller, D., R. Lea. 1972. Guide to the Coastal Marine Fishes of California: California Fish Bulletin Number 157. California: Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

O'Connel, C. 1981. Development of organ systems in the Northern anchovy, Engraulis mordax, and other teleosts. American Zoologist, 21: 429-446. Accessed May 16, 2011 at http://swfsc.noaa.gov/publications/CR/1981/8145.PDF.

Picquelle, S., R. Hewitt. 1983. The northern anchovy spawning biomass for the 1982-83 California Fishing season. Northern Anchovy spawning biomass, XXIV: 16-28.