What Are Baby Fish Called: Unveiling the Term for Young Aquatic Hatchlings

fish eggsUnderstanding the early stages of fish life involves a fascinating journey through distinct developmental phases. Baby fish are not uniformly known by a single term; the name changes as they grow and progress through various stages of their lifecycle. Initially, after hatching from eggs, baby fish are often referred to as hatchlings. During the earlier phase, while they still rely on the yolk sac for nutrition, they are called larvae.

As they continue to develop, these young fish transition into what is popularly known as the fry stage. This change marks their ability to actively feed and swim—traits that signify growing independence in their aquatic environment. The fry stage is generally followed by the fingerling phase, characterized by fish having developed scales and working fins.

The terminology used to describe baby fish varies across species and stages, reflecting the diverse and rich life cycles found in the aquatic world. Each term—hatchling, larva, fry, and fingerling—sheds light on a specific period of growth and development, leading up to maturity. This linguistic variation is essential for scientists, fishermen, and enthusiasts alike to communicate accurately about the fascinating growth process of fish.




A group of tiny fish swim together in a clear, shallow stream, their small bodies darting playfully among the water plants and rocks


Fry refers to a stage immediately after the hatchlings emerge from their eggs. Typically, these are fish that are less than one month old and are transitioning from the initial reliance on their yolk sacs to feeding on external sources.


When fry develop to the point where they resemble small adults and are able to feed independently, they enter the juvenile phase. During this stage, they continue to grow and develop until they reach sexual maturity.


The term hatchling is often used to describe baby fish at the moment they emerge from their eggs. At this stage, hatchlings are usually still carrying their yolk sac which provides necessary nutrients during the initial days or weeks of life.


Larvae are newly hatched fish which have not yet reached the fry stage. These early-stage creatures are often part of the ichthyoplankton and drift in the water column, unable to swim against currents. They go through several molts before becoming fry.


Life Stages

Egg Stage

Eggs represent the earliest life stage of fish, beginning at spawning and concluding with hatching. They are often referred to as roe and safeguard the developing embryo. Most eggs possess an egg envelope that provides protection, and during this stage, fish are particularly susceptible to environmental conditions and predation.

Larval Stage

Following the Egg Stage, hatchlings enter the Larval Stage, where they are known as yolk-sac larvae due to the presence of a yolk sac attached to their body. This sac supplies vital nutrients until they can feed independently. At this point, they may be called sac fry or alevin. As the larvae mature, they start to look more like fish, developing functional mouths, eyes, and swimming capabilities.

Juvenile Stage

Once the yolk sac is completely absorbed, the fish advance to the Juvenile Stage, where they’re termed fry. As fry, they grow into fingerlings – young fish that resemble the adult shape but are not yet fully grown. During this stage, growth is rapid, and fish may pass through transitional forms such as parr and smolt in species like salmon, as they prepare for the journey to the sea or towards maturity. The Juvenile Stage is pivotal as fish develop the necessary skills for survival and progress towards adulthood.


Reproduction and Growth


Spawning is a critical reproductive process for many fish species. The female fish release eggs into the water, often in large numbers, to maximize the chances of fertilization. The male fish then release sperm, known as milt, to fertilize the eggs. The timing of spawning can be highly synchronized within a species to ensure a higher rate of successful fertilization.

  • Example of Species Specific Spawning: Salmon are known for their spawning behavior where they return to their place of birth to spawn.


Once the eggs are fertilized, development begins. The developmental stages include:

  1. Egg: The initial stage post-fertilization.
  2. Larvae: Begins after hatching, with the yolk-sac providing nourishment.
  3. Fry: Follows the larval stage as the young fish start feeding independently.
  4. Juvenile: The fish continue growing to reach their adult size and shape.

In livebearing species, development progresses in the female’s body until birth. These species skip the egg and external larval stages, directly giving birth to free-swimming young.

  • Breeding: Some species, like guppies, are livebearers, with the female giving birth to developed fry.

The table below shows the transition from spawning to juvenile fish:

Stage Description Example Species
Spawning Egg release and fertilization with milt. Salmon
Larvae Hatching from eggs, nourished by yolk-sac. Trout
Fry Independent feeding begins, development of adult form. Goldfish
Juvenile Maturation towards adult size and reproductive ability. Tuna


Behavior and Habitat

school of fish

Schooling and Survival

Young fish, often termed fry, instinctively gravitate towards schooling behavior for survival. Schooling is a collective behavior where individuals congregate in large numbers. This cohesion confers numerous benefits, vicariously increasing each member’s chance of survival. For instance, predators find it challenging to target a single fish within a shoal, which can confuse their visual tracking systems. Shoaling also enhances foraging efficiency and oxygen levels throughout the group by creating a dynamic that optimizes the use of available resources.

In terms of survival tactics, camouflage and hiding are vital. Fry frequently utilize plants and other structures for concealment from predators, blending into their surroundings to avoid detection. Their diminutive size and often translucent bodies provide natural camouflage, a robust first line of defense during these vulnerable stages.

Habitat Preferences

The preferred habitat for baby fish is inherently linked to their survival strategies. They seek environments that offer optimal conditions such as suitable water temperature, abundant plants, and high oxygen levels. Such conditions are typically found in shallow waters, which are often warmer due to greater sunlight penetration and support a richer growth of aquatic plants.

These shallow zones can be susceptible to flooding and sedimentation, affecting the habitat’s quality. Baby fish are adapted to cope with these variable conditions, but extreme changes can be detrimental to their survival. The presence of dense plants not only supplies oxygen but also serves as a buffer against strong currents and high sedimentation, providing a stable environment for the young fish to thrive.


Fish Species Examples


Salmon and rainbow trout are notable examples of salmonids. After hatching, these fish are referred to as alevins and are characterized by the possession of a yolk sac which provides nourishment. As they grow, they become fry and later transform into parr before eventually maturing into smolts. Steelhead, a type of rainbow trout which migrates to the ocean, also follows this developmental sequence.


Livebearers like guppies, platies, and swordtails give birth to live young, known as fry, that are relatively mature and capable of fending for themselves. This group does not lay eggs; instead, their fry are born fully formed. These fry are capable of swimming and feeding immediately after birth.

Other Notable Species

  • Angelfish: After hatching, angelfish fry must be protected and fed by their parents until they can swim and feed independently.
  • Mouthbrooders: Species such as certain cichlids are mouthbrooders, wherein parents carry the fry in their mouths for protection.
  • Elvers: Young eels, particularly European eels, are known as elvers as they make their way upstream from their birth in the Sargasso Sea.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the term for a group of juvenile fish?

A group of juvenile fish is often referred to as a “shoal” or sometimes a “school,” although “school” is more commonly associated with the coordinated swimming behavior of fish.

Why are juvenile fish commonly referred to as fry?

Juvenile fish are referred to as fry because this term specifically denotes the early development stage of fish immediately after they hatch from eggs, when they are still very small and often still dependent on their yolk sacs for nutrition.

What terminology is used for the eggs of fish?

The eggs of fish are commonly called “roe.” In specific contexts, the term “spawn” is also used to describe the process of fish laying eggs as well as the eggs themselves.

What are alternative names for juvenile fish?

Aside from “fry,” juvenile fish can also be referred to as larvae and later as juveniles as they continue to grow. The specific terms used can vary based on the fish’s stage of development.

Are the terms fry and fingerling interchangeable when talking about young fish?

No, the terms “fry” and “fingerling” are not interchangeable. “Fry” refers to a fish that has just hatched, while “fingerling” is a term for a larger, more developed juvenile fish that is roughly the size of a human finger.