Mugil cephalus

striped mullet



Type Locality

Europe (Linnaeus 1758).


Etymology/Derivation of Scientific Name

Mugil, Latin for mullet, from mulgeo, “to suck;” cephalus, Greek for “head” (Pflieger 1997).



Mugil cephalus Linnaeus 1758:316 in Eschmeyer 1990.

Mugil plumeri Wailes 1854:334.



Maximum size: Slightly over 900 mm TL (from India; Etnier and Starnes 1993).


Life colors:  Sides with longitudinal dark stripes along the scale rows (Hubbs et al. 1991). Blue-gray along the back and upper sides, fading to white on the underside (Ross 2001). Juvenile fish, up to 30-35 mm SL, are bright iridescent silver on sides and underbody; back and top of head are duller (Anderson 1958).


Counts: Usually 41 lateral line scales; soft dorsal and anal fins with few scales; usually 8 (rarely 7 or 9) anal fin soft rays; lower limb of first gill arch with 25-60 gill rakers (Hubbs et al. 1991); 5 dorsal spines; 3 anal spines; 16 (15-17) pectoral rays; 18-20 caudal fin rays (Ross 2001).


Body shape:  Cylindrical (Ross 2001).


Mouth position: Terminal (Goldstein and Simon 1999); lower jaw angular, with a prominent symphyseal knob (Hubbs et al. 1991).


External morphology: Adipose eyelid well developed in adults (fish greater than 30-40 mm SL); scales cycloid in young fish, adults developing weakly ctenoid scales (Hubbs et al. 1991; Ross 2001).


Internal morphology: Gut long (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


Distribution (Native and Introduced)

U.S. distribution: Worldwide circumtropical distribution (Hubbs et al 1991). Species has been recorded on several occasions from the Denison Dam on the Red River, which is 281 km upstream from the confluence with the Mississippi River, near Shreveport, Louisiana (Riggs 1957).


Texas distribution: Occurs in all of the major bays and estuaries of the state (Hubbs et al 1991); occupying the Texan, Austroriparian, and Tamaulipan biotic provinces in Texas (Hubbs 1957). Warren et al. (2000) listed the following drainage units for distribution of Mugil cephalus in the state: Red River (from the mouth upstream to and including the Kiamichi River), Sabine Lake (including minor coastal drainages west to Galveston Bay), Galveston Bay (including minor coastal drainages west to mouth of Brazos River), Brazos River, Colorado River, San Antonio Bay (including minor coastal drainages west of mouth of Colorado River to mouth of Nueces River), Nueces River.


Abundance/Conservation status (Federal, State, NGO)

Populations in the southern United States are currently secure (Warren et al. 2000).


Habitat Associations

Macrohabitat: A marine-estuarine species, common in warm, coastal water (Rivas 1980); often ascending coastal rivers for considerable distances, stopping at Fall Line (Burgess 1980). 


Mesohabitat: Mugil cephalus make regular off-shore-inshore movements, but tend to remain in the same general region of the coast (Rivas 1980). Developing larvae move inshore, reaching estuarine areas when 16-28 mm in size (Anderson 1958; De Silva 1980; Nordlie et al. 1982). As small fish are unable to effectively regulate internal salt content, entrance into lower salinity water of estuaries, then into fresh water is delayed until they develop regulatory abilities; at 16-20 mm SL, fish can survive in brackish water, and are fully tolerant of fresh water at about 7-9 months old, at a length of 40-69 mm SL (Nordlie et al. 1982).



Spawning season: October - early February, peaking in November and December (Rivas 1980). Early winter, in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico (Finucane et al. 1978).


Spawning location: In salt water; in the northern Gulf of Mexico, varying distances from shore, all the way out to the edge of the continental shelf. Pelagic eggs of Mugil cephalus were identified from samples taken in early December from 89-98 km off the Texas coast in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico, this being the first reported spawning of the species in this area (Finucane et al. 1978).


Reproductive strategy: Fertilization is external (Ross 2001). Direct observations of nocturnal spawning; spawning at night and very rapid egg development listed as possible adaptations minimizing probability of eggs being exposed to heavy waves (Martin and Drewry 1978).


Fecundity: A single female can produce from 250,000 to 2.20 million eggs, egg number being directly related to body weight; eggs small (mean + 0.72 mm diameter), non-adhesive and pelagic, hatching in about 48 hours; Mugil cephalus apparently spawn only once each year (Collins 1985; Greeley et al., 1987). Eggs collected offshore from Port Aransas, Texas in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico ranged from 0.91-0.99 mm diameter and averaged 0.95 mm diameter; diameters of oil globules ranged from 0.30-0.36 mm and averaged 0.33 mm diameter; newly hatched yolk sac larvae were 2.1 mm long (Finucane et al. 1978).


Age/Size at maturation: In the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, females reach mature sexually by 230-270 mm SL, at 2-3 years of age (Collins 1985; Greeley et al., 1987). Both sexes attain sexual maturation in fresh water (Ross 2001).


Migration: Migrates to offshore marine waters to spawn (Burgess 1980); because of movement into fresh water, species sometimes referred to as catadromous: spawning in salt water, but returning to freshwater to feed (De Silva 1980). Movement by adults to offshore spawning areas may be linked to lunar or tidal cycles (Rivas 1980). Record of Mugil cephalus entering Lake Texoma (Oklahoma-Texas), 1600 km from Gulf of Mexico (Rivas 1980).


Longevity: 5 or 6 years, although in many areas few live past 4 years (Rivas 1980).


Food habits: Goldstein and Simon (1999) list first and second level trophic classifications for this species as detritivore/invertivore, and filter feeder, respectively; trophic mode: filterer; adults and subadults almost exclusively detritivores, but young feed on small invertebrates such as copepods and insect larvae (Etnier and Starnes 1993). Termed "interface feeders,” feeding at surface boundaries such as air-water, plant-water, or mud-water interfaces (Odum 1970) by sucking up the surface layer of mud or grazing on diatoms or algae attached to rock or plant surfaces (Ross 2001). Larvae, especially those of 5-15 mm SL, feed mainly on animal matter including microcrustaceans such as copepods, and small aquatic insects such as mosquito larvae (Harrington and Harrington 1961; De Silva 1980); young fish, 20-30 mm SL, ingest large amounts of organic matter, bacteria, algae and diatoms; as growth continues diet shifts from browsing on exposed organisms to grazing on surface/subsurface materials; fish above 40 mm SL begin to dig into bottom, with fish reaching 110 mm SL scraping 5-7 mm into sediment; an individual of about 200 mm SL may filter over 450 kg of bottom sediment in a year; sand grains compromise 50-60% of the bulk of diet for fish larger than 40 mm SL (Odum 1970; Eggold and Motta 1992). At times, adults may feed opportunistically on animal prey when highly abundant, such as spawning aggregations of marine bristleworms (Bishop and Miglarese 1978). Moriarity (1976) notes that bacteria is likely far more important in the diet in muddier areas. After dawn, there is an increase in feeding activity, peaking near midday, declining in the afternoon; individuals may rest on the bottom without moving, during the night. Feeding rates of this species unrelated to salinity (Collins 1981). Digestion rates lower for fish in fresh water compared to those inhabiting salt water (Perera and De Silva 1978). Gerking (1994) uses Mugil cephalus as a representative of the “filterer” feeding mode: Detritus obtained by filtering organic particles from water. Protraction of premaxillaries and movement of head rapidly from side while sucking the substrate produces conical depressions in the substrate. When mouth is opened, the palantine, stenohyoid, and opercular muscles, combined with the muscles of the branchial arches, create a suction action by enlarging the buccal cavity. Solid particles pass through the convex pharyngeal pads projecting from the roof of the mouth and the concave depression of the floor of the mouth. Dorsal pad is coated with thick, soft membrane studded by minute teeth (Goldstein and Simon 1999).


Growth and Population structure: Newly hatched fish average 2.65 mm TL (Kuo et al. 1973). Growth of juveniles rapid, on average 0.2-0.6 mm/day (Anderson 1958; De Silva and Silva 1979). Individuals reach 160 mm SL by end of 1st year, and 200-235 mm SL by year 2 (Anderson 1958).


Phylogeny and morphologically similar fishes

Mugil cephalus most similar to the white mullet (M. curema), from which it differs in having 8 (vs. 9) anal rays (Ross 2001). M. cephalus is similar in general appearance to Agonostomus monticola, but Agonostomus lacks an adipose eyelid, has a relatively thick lower lip, fewer gill rakers (17-20 on the lower limb of the first arch vs. 25 or more in Mugil), and considerable brown pigmentation on the body (Boschung and Mayden 2004).


Host Records

Protozoa: Myxosporidia host (Mayberry et al. 2000).


Commercial or Environmental Importance

One of the most important food fishes in the Gulf of Mexico (Ross 2001).



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