Sprats vs. Sardines: What Are The Differences?

Written by Kyle Glatz
Updated: October 26, 2023
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Many beautiful and strange fish fill the oceans of the world. Although it’s more entertaining to talk about the large, dangerous sharks that lurk in the water, other important fish swim the oceans as well. For example, small schooling fish provide an important part of the ocean’s food chain and help sustain life in Earth’s deep waters.

Species of these small fish look so much alike that phylogenetically different creatures are sometimes grouped together, like sprats and sardines. What are the differences between sprats versus sardines, and can you tell them apart at a glance?

These are the questions that we’re going to answer throughout this article as we look to uncover the major differences between these animals.  

Comparing Sprats and Sardines

Many mistake sprats and sardines for one another, but key differences distinguish the two fish.
SizeWeight: 0.4-0.7 oz
Length: 3.5-7 inches
Weight: 2-3 oz average, up to 7 lbs
Length: 3.9-11 inches
Morphology– Thin, silver fish with blue or green on their backs
– Pointed mouth
– Fan-shaped, singular dorsal fin
– Silver with green or gold colors
– Reddish-brown flesh
– No scales on the head
– One small, triangular dorsal fin shaped like a shark’s tooth
Diet– Fish larvae
– Plankton
– Zooplankton
– Phytoplankton
– Fish larvae
Phylogenetic Family– Clupeidae family
– One genus: Sprattus
– Five species considered true sprats
Sprattus sprattus (European sprat) is one of the most common of the true sprats  
Clupeidae family
– Includes five genera of fish, such as Sardina
– Over 20 species can be considered sardines
– The European pilchard – Sardina pulchadus – is considered the true sardine
Location– Western Europe
– Australia
– New Zealand
– Falkland Islands
– Baltic Sea  
– North America
– South America
– Europe, including the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea
– Pacific and Indian Oceans
– Off the coasts of Australia and parts of South Africa

The 5 Key Differences Between Sprats and Sardines


Sprats are generally smaller than sardines.

©Valerii Evlakhov/Shutterstock.com

While the biggest differences between sprats and sardines are in their morphology and their phylogenetic family, there are several other distinctions between the two fish. Such features include their size, diet, and where they live. Generally, sprats, belonging to the Sprattus genus, are thin, silver fish with blue or green on their backs, a pointed mouth, and a single fan-shaped dorsal fin. Sardines are silver, green, and gold fish with no scales on their head and a small triangular dorsal fin. Sardines are from the five genera of the Clupeidae family and include the Sardina pulchadus, or the true sardine.

Sprats vs. Sardines: Size

The average sardine is larger than a sprat. Sardines can measure between 2 and 3 ounces or weigh up to 7 pounds in some cases. They measure anywhere between 3.9 and 11 inches.

Sprats are somewhat smaller fish that weigh between 0.4 and 0.7 ounces and measure 3.5 to 7 inches in length. Given the fact that both terms are broadly applied to both types of schooling fish, these measurements are approximate, but offer a good idea of their general size.

Sprats vs. Sardines: Morphology

School of sardines swimming from left to right

True sardines lack scales on their head and have very small dorsal fins.

©Dennis Forster/Shutterstock.com

Sprats and sardines look a lot alike at first glance; however, there are some key features that distinguish the two silvery fish. Sprats have blue and green on their backs; possess a single, fan-shaped dorsal fin; and their mouths come to a point.

Sardines are silver, green, and gold; have no scales on their heads; and they have a very small, triangular dorsal fin that resembles a shark’s tooth. True sardines also have reddish-brown flesh.

Sprats vs. Sardines: Diet

Sprats and sardines are important members of the food chain. These fish school in large groups, and they are eaten by larger ocean creatures. Since they are so small, sardines and sprats eat some of the smallest foods on the planet.

Sprats feed on plankton, as well as floating fish eggs. While generally sharing the same diet, sardines are known to favor zooplankton and phytoplankton, specifically.

Sprats vs. Sardines: Phylogenetic Family

Sprats and sardines both stem from the same phylogenetic family, Clupeidae; however, they belong to completely different genera.

True sprats belong to the Sprattus genus, and five different species of fish exist within that. The most common of the true sprats is the Sprattus sprattus, the European sprat.

Five genera of fish are considered sardines. These include Dussumieria, Escualosa, Sardina, Sardinella, and Sardinops. The Sardina pulchadus is considered the most common of the true sardines, and it may be the origin of the fish’s name. This fish’s common name is the European pilchard.

20 species of fish are considered sardines, including ones that do not belong to the Sardina family. In fact, many different fish that do not belong to the same genera as true sprats and true sardines are often included when people identify these creatures. Because the fish are small and hard to tell apart, they’re lumped together in larger groups. These small pelagic forage fish are used as bait, food for humans and animals, and more, so it’s easy to put them under umbrella terms like sprat, sardine, or herring.

Sprats vs. Sardines: Location

The school of juvenile sardine

Sardines can be found around the world.


Between the two of them, true sprats and sardines are found all over the world. Sprats can be found in western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the Baltic Sea, and near the Falkland Islands.

Meanwhile, sardines are located around the Americas, Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, off the coast of Australia, some parts of southern Africa, and widely in the waters of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Now that we’ve looked at sprats and sardines, you can see how similar these two types of fish are. As can be seen, though, they’re both very different in certain ways. While it’s hard to quantify these differences across all species of sardines and sprats, you should now have a basic overview of what makes each fish unique.

Are Sprats like Anchovies?

In Scandinavia, the “anchovies” in tins are often flavored and preserved sprats, not actual anchovies. The name refers to the taste, not the fish. While they’re different fish, the spicing and storage make them quite similar.

Sprats are occasionally used as substitutes for other fish. Products labeled as anchovies, and even sardines, have sometimes been made from sprats since the 19th century. This happened when the real ones were harder to come by.

Sprats have a similar mild taste, making them easy to confuse with young sardines.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © SaltedLife/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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