How Ambush Predators Rule the Waves

Learn about these stealthy hunters of the sea

Our ocean is home to a diverse range of species that carry out their daily activities with little concern. Take the surgeonfish, which spends its days peacefully grazing on the green and brown algae of coral reefs. But, beneath this tranquility, ambush predators patiently hunt for their next meal.

“Ambush predators,” or “sit-and-wait predators,” use a unique hunting strategy. Unlike their counterparts, “pursuit predators,” that rely on speed and endurance to chase down their prey, ambush predators conserve energy by concealing themselves. They wait for the right moment to launch a sudden, overwhelming attack aimed at swiftly incapacitating their target. Let’s take a closer look at how ambush predators hunt.


Marine ambush predators use a variety of tactics to draw their prey within striking distances. For example, stonefish have excellent camouflage—their bodies are typically brown with orange, yellow or red patches and are textured to resemble the surrounding rocks or coral. Stonefish use this to their advantage while hunting and will wait for fish to swim by and then swiftly attack and swallow their prey.


The next phase of an ambush predator’s hunting strategy is assessment. Ambush predators must time their strikes carefully, detecting prey, assessing if it’s worth attacking and striking when it is in exactly the right place. Ambush predators have evolved a variety of adaptations to facilitate this assessment. The appropriately named tripodfish uses its extremely long front fins to identify prey since it lacks proper vision in low-light environments.

Tripodfish in the ocean


Following the assessment phase comes the crucial moment of capturing prey. Ambush predators have adaptations for swiftly and securely seizing their victims. The frogfish uses suction to draw both water and prey into its mouth, followed by swallowing and closing the esophagus with a muscular mechanism to prevent escape. The frogfish captures its prey in as fast as six milliseconds.

Why you should care

Ambush predators use their amazing evolutionary adaptations to hunt their prey and survive. Though they may sound like bullies, this couldn’t be further from the truth; ambush predators play a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance in marine ecosystems through regulating prey populations. Their existence is essential for a healthy ocean. 

Unfortunately, ambush predators aren’t immune to threats like climate change, risky drilling and plastic pollution. That’s why Ocean Conservancy is working tirelessly to protect our ocean from today’s greatest challenges. We are on the front lines of ocean protection, investing in research, leadership and advocacy that advance evidence-based solutions. But we can’t do it without you. Take action and join the fight to protect our ocean, marine wildlife and the communities that depend on it.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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