Red Indianfish, Pataecus fronto Click to enlarge image
A Red Indianfish at a depth of 9 m, east of Henry Head, La Perouse, Sydney, New South Wales, 8 May 2005. Image: Derek Morton
© Derek Morton

Fast Facts

  • Classification
  • Size Range
    The species grows to a maximum length of 35 cm.

The derivation of the scientific name of the Red Indian Fish is quite interesting. Pataeco (from Greek) was a dwarf-like Phoenician God. This name refers to the likeness of this species to the images of Gods on the bows of ancient sailing vessels. The species name fronto is from the Latin for brow or fore part of anything. This refers to the high first dorsal fin.


The Red Indian Fish is an uncommon species with a compressed body and a long-based dorsal fin. Individuals are often scarlet, brick red or orange. Occasionally they may be pale or have black and/or white spots, mainly on the upper half of the fish. The species lacks pelvic fins and has no scales.

The standard name of the species refers to the long dorsal fin which resembles the popular image of a native North American chief's headdress. The dorsal fin stretches the entire length of the body, and comprises an elevated spiny section joined with a lower, soft-rayed section. This is in turn joined to the caudal fin.

Fishes of the family Pataecidae are collectively known as prowfishes. This is one of the few families that is endemic to Australia. Three species are known; the Red Indian Fish, the Warty Prowfish, Aetapcus maculatus, and the Whiskered Prowfish, Neopataecus waterhousii. The Red Indian Fish is the only species in the genus Pataecus.


The species is reported to live in water of 20 m to 80 m depth, but is sometimes seen as shallow as 10 m.

Red Indian Fish are found primarily in sponge beds, in rocky reefs and estuaries. Their colouration and distinctive shape result in fish being well camouflaged among sponges.

Divers also observe them on cracks in reef walls and lying on bare rocky substrates.


The Red Indian Fish is endemic to Australia, occurring in temperate and subtropical coastal marine waters from southern Queensland to southern New South Wales and from South Australia to the central coast of Western Australia.

The map below shows the Australian distribution of the species based on public sightings and specimens in Australian Museums.

Feeding and diet

Fishes in the family Pataecidae eat mainly shrimps and other crustaceans.

Other behaviours and adaptations

The Red Indian Fish is known to periodically shed its skin in one complete piece. This rids the fish of the encrusting algae and bryozoans that grow on the skin and improve its camouflage. Little is known of its the biology.

The species is an underwater photographers' delight because, unlike most fishes, it does not swim off when discovered, but stays motionless during the photographic session.

Individuals are often observed rocking back and forth with the surge of passing waves. This makes the fish look less fish-like and more sponge-like.

Red Indian Fish have an unusual swimming 'style'. If an individual is removed from a sponge and released above the bottom it will twist, fall and spin back to its position on the sponge. Whilst it is doing so, it resembles a large dead leaf sinking through the water. The remarkable thing about this behaviour is that the fish is in complete control of the 'fall', and can 'fall' against a current to land back in the spot from which it was removed, but all the time it looks nothing like a fish.

Economic impacts

The species is sometimes accidentally captured in commercial trawl nets, but is of no commercial importance.


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  2. Eschmeyer, W.N. in Paxton, J.R. & W.N. Eschmeyer (Eds). 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Sydney: New South Wales University Press; San Diego: Academic Press [1995]. Pp. 240.
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