Are Salmon and Trout Related?

Salmon and trout may look very similar, but are they actually related? The short answer is yes, salmon and trout are close relatives in the fish family Salmonidae.


Salmon and trout have long been a popular part of diets around the world, prized for their pink flesh and rich, fatty taste. They share many similarities in appearance, habitat, and culinary uses. But scientifically speaking, how closely are salmon and trout related?

Both salmon and trout belong to the family Salmonidae, which contains all salmon, trout, and char species. The salmonid family is part of a larger grouping of ray-finned fishes called Protacanthopterygii. This means that all salmonids share common ancestry and evolved from a common progenitor species millions of years ago.

Over time, ancestral salmonids diverged and adapted to fill different ecological niches. Some species remained in freshwater environments while others evolved to migrate between fresh and saltwater. This divergence in habitat and life history led to the evolution of distinct salmon and trout genera that we recognize today.

So while salmon and trout may look alike, they are actually separate genera with different species, habitats, and spawning behaviors. But their shared evolutionary history and membership in the salmonid family means that salmon and trout have an undeniably close relationship.

The Salmonidae Family of Fish

The Salmonidae family contains all true salmon, trout, char, whitefish, ciscoes, and grayling species. There are around 60 species within this family, under various genera.

Some key features that characterize salmonid fish include:

  • Streamlined fusiform body – A torpedo-shaped body tapered at both ends allows salmonids to swim efficiently.
  • Adipose fin – A small fleshy fin on the back near the tail, characteristic of salmonid fishes.
  • Rayed dorsal fin – Salmonids have a single dorsal fin with rays, rather than multiple dorsal fins.
  • Axillary process – A protrusion of the pelvic fin base that aids in reproduction.
  • Small scales – Thin cycloid scales cover the body. Scales easily fall off.
  • Oily flesh – Rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Gives salmonids a prized, tender texture.

Salmonids originated in the tributaries of the North Pacific Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, and Arctic Ocean. After emerging from the oceans, ancestral salmonids colonized freshwater systems across northern latitudes in North America, Europe, and Asia.

This family includes iconic sport fish like salmon, trout, and chars renowned by anglers worldwide. However, many salmonid species are endangered or threatened due to factors like overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change. Proper fisheries management and conservation practices can help protect these important fish.

The Salmon Genus

The Salmon genus Salmo contains the Atlantic salmon and trout species native to tributaries around the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea. Atlantic salmon evolved in the north Atlantic, inhabiting coastal rivers of Eastern North America, Western Europe, and Iceland.

Salmo species are native to cold, oxygen-rich streams, rivers, and lakes across northern latitudes. Young salmonids hatch in freshwater gravel beds, then may remain in rivers or lakes until maturity.

Some key species in the Salmon genus include:

  • Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) – The classic Atlantic salmon is silver with black spots and migrates from natal rivers out to sea and back to spawn. They can grow up to 46 kg (100 lbs).
  • Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) – Native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Variable coloring from brown to golden. Introduced in many countries.
  • Arctic Char (Salvelinus alpinus) – Circumpolar distribution in Arctic lakes and coastal waters. Coloration varies from silvery to iridescent green.
  • Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) – Native to Eastern North America. Dark green color with vermiculate patterns on back and dorsal fin.
  • Lake Trout (Salvelinus namaycush) – The largest freshwater char native to lakes of Canada and northern United States. Silvery gray with pale spots.

The Trout Genus

The Trout genus Oncorhynchus contains Pacific species like rainbow, cutthroat, and golden trout. Trout in this genus are native to tributaries of the Pacific Ocean, including rivers of Western North America and Northeast Asia.

Pacific trout live in cold, clear streams and lakes, migrating to the ocean to feed and grow before returning to freshwater to spawn. They demonstrate amazing homing abilities, migrating hundreds or even thousands of miles back to natal streams and rivers.

Major trout species in the genus Oncorhynchus include:

  • Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) – Sport fish native to the Pacific coast of North America and Asia.Named for the colorful bands on their sides.
  • Cutthroat Trout (Oncorhynchus clarki) – Diverse species found in Western North America. Named for the distinctive red slash near the gills.
  • Golden Trout (Oncorhynchus aguabonita) – Brilliant golden yellow and red coloring. Native to California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
  • Bull Trout (Salvelinus confluentus) – Known as Dolly Varden in Alaska and Canada. Olive green back with red and copper blotches.
  • Gila Trout (Oncorhynchus gilae) – Rare species native to a few Southwestern U.S. streams. Golden body with black spots along back.

The Salmon Genus

The Salmon genus Oncorhynchus contains iconic Pacific salmon species like Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum, and pink salmon. Pacific salmon evolved along the Asian and North American coasts of the northern Pacific Ocean.

Pacific salmon live most of their lives in the ocean, then make incredible marathon migrations back to their exact stream of birth to spawn and die. Different salmon species have distinct life histories suited to the conditions of their home streams.

Major Pacific salmon species in Oncorhynchus include:

  • Chinook Salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) – Also called king salmon. The largest salmon, up to 135 lbs. Blue-green back with black spots.
  • Sockeye Salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) – Also called red salmon. Bright red body and green head when spawning.
  • Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) – Also called silver salmon. More elongated body shape. Dark blue back and silver sides.
  • Pink Salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) – Smallest and most abundant salmon. Nearly black back with white belly.
  • Chum Salmon (Oncorhynchus keta) – Also called dog salmon. Calico pattern in gray, purple, red and green.

Key Differences Between Salmon and Trout

While closely related as salmonids, salmon and trout have evolved distinct differences in their biology and life histories. Here are some of the major ways salmon and trout differ:


  • Salmon are anadromous – they migrate from the ocean into freshwater rivers and streams to spawn.
  • Trout are freshwater fish, spending their full lifecycle in rivers, lakes, and streams. Some trout will migrate to different freshwater habitats.

Reproduction and Lifespan

  • Most salmon die after spawning while trout can spawn repeatedly during their lifetime.
  • Salmon generally have short lifespans of 2-6 years while trout can live 4-10 years.
  • Salmon fry head out to sea shortly after hatching while trout fry stay in their natal streams.

Physical Appearance

  • Salmon tend to be more silvery in color while trout often have brilliant red, green, and golden hues.
  • Salmon develop a hooked jaw and humped back when spawning while trout maintain a sleeker profile.
  • Trout have larger, more rounded spots compared to the smaller spots of salmon.

Taste and Texture

  • Salmon have a more pronounced, fishy flavor compared to the milder trout.
  • Salmon have a fattier, richer texture and color while trout have a leaner, more delicate flavor.

So while closely related, millions of years of divergent evolution have led to key differences between modern salmon and trout species. Understanding their unique biologies provides insights into properly managing these valuable fish.

Evolutionary History of Salmonids

Salmon and trout share a common ancestral progenitor that lived over 50 million years ago. The evolutionary history of salmonids helps explain their diversity and wide distribution today.

Rise of Modern Salmonids

  • Ancient salmonids first appeared in the Cretaceous period 146-66 million years ago. Early ancestral salmonids were part of an ancient group called the Protacanthopterygii.
  • Primitive salmonids radiated and spread across the northern hemisphere around 50 million years ago in the early Cenozoic era.
  • The major groups of modern salmonid genera evolved roughly 25-40 million years ago as ancestors adapted to cold, oxygen-rich northern waters.
  • Pacific and Atlantic salmonid groups diverged into distinct genera around 18-25 million years ago in response to geographic isolation.
  • Adaptive radiation led to diversification into the hundreds of modern salmonid species 1-5 million years ago during the Pleistocene ice ages.

Key Evolutionary Adaptations

Several key adaptations allowed ancestral salmonids to succeed and spread across the northern latitudes:

  • Anadromy – The ability to migrate between fresh and saltwater allowed salmonids to colonize new habitats.
  • Cold tolerance – Adaptations like antifreeze proteins in blood allowed them to thrive in icy waters.
  • Swimming efficiency – Fusiform bodies and tails optimized for swimming performance.
  • Sensory systems – Excellent vision, smell, and lateral line systems to aid migration.
  • Scales and slime – Slippery mucous and loose scales make them hard for predators to grasp.
  • Homology – Imprinting on natal streams allows precise homing migrations.
  • Lifespan – Diverse reproductive strategies from semelparity to iteroparity suit different conditions.
  • Tolerance of low oxygen – Ability to extract oxygen from cold, running waters.

Understanding the evolutionary history and adaptations of salmonids provides context for properly managing and conserving these unique fish in a changing world.


While salmon and trout appear quite similar, they are distinct fish that have followed separate evolutionary paths for millions of years since sharing a common ancestor.

Modern salmon and trout comprise over a dozen unique genera in the Salmonidae family found across the northern latitudes. Though distinct, salmon and trout remain close cousins that share key adaptations like anadromy, cold tolerance, and homing instincts.

From a common progenitor, salmonids have undergone beautiful adaptive radiations to fill diverse ecological niches in streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans across the northern hemisphere. Careful stewardship is needed to ensure the persistence of these amazing fish into the future.

So next time you fillet a pink salmon or fry up a brown trout, take a moment to appreciate these fascinating animals and their long shared history as salmonid fishes. While clearly distinct today, salmon and trout remain undeniably close relatives


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