Physical characteristics

Snakeheads form a morphologically unique group of primarily freshwater fishes, which greatly vary in size at maturity. Some species have distinctively small pelvic fins, while a few others lack them completely. Generally, snakeheads have an elongated cylindrical body; flattened head; long, entirely soft-rayed dorsal and anal fins; a large mouth with well-developed teeth on both upper and lower jaws; tubelike anterior nostrils; a round to somewhat truncate caudal fin; cycloid or ctenoid body scales; shield-like scales on a head that superficially resemble that of a snake; a lengthy, elongated swim bladder reaching to the caudal peduncle region; and an accessory air-breathing apparatus

(suprabranchial organ) in the head region. This suprabranchial organ is mainly composed of three parts: a suprabranchial chamber, epibranchial respiratory fold, and hyomandibular process.

Species of snakeheads can be distinguished based on coloration, meristics, and morphometrics, as well as the distribution of scales on the underside of the lower jaw, the shape of the head, and the morphology of the suprabranchial organs. Much taxonomic confusion has resulted from the fact that coloration in each species changes dramatically during growth, and in many cases, the color of juveniles is completely different from that of adults. One such case is the giant snakehead (Channa micropeltes), a popular aquarium fish that has striking black and red "racing stripes" as a juvenile, but variegated blackish markings as an adult. Many species have distinct adult coloration, such as ocellus (ocelli) on the body and/or caudal fin, vertical bands on the pectoral fins, and small spots on the body.

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