The pilot fish is an extremely brave little fish that will actually swim into a shark’s mouth. Once there, the pilot fish picks bits of food caught on the shark’s teeth. They’ll also eat parasites trying to live in the shark’s mouth.
In exchange for being the shark’s personal dentist, the pilot fish gets many benefits. First, there’s always lots of food to eat. Second, nobody messes with the shark’s best buddy! Any fish that might want to eat the pilot fish has to worry about becoming the shark’s meal. Finally, sharks can swim much faster than pilot fish. However, once the pilot fish is caught up in the shark’s wake, they basically get pulled along close to the shark, allowing them to move much more quickly than they could alone.
The pilot fish is a very social fish. In addition to sharks, they’ll swim alongside turtles, stingrays, or even boats. Sailors noticed this centuries ago and gave the pilot fish its name. The sailors thought the fish were guiding, or “piloting,” their escorts to food or safety, the way a tugboat guides a big ship into harbor.
Another myth was that the fish was poisonous, which is why sharks wouldn’t eat the pilot fish. As it turns out, the pilot fish isn’t poisonous. Nobody knows why sharks don’t eat the pilot fish when they swim into their mouths. Perhaps sharks simply understand the importance of keeping their ghastly smiles clean and healthy.