Nobody likes having somebody spit in their face, but it's particularly bad news for an insect if an archerfish spits in its face. It normally means near-instant death.

Archerfish spend their time hovering just below the surface of the water. When they spot an insect or spider, perched on a plant just above the water, they take careful aim.

The archerfish then spits a jet of water at its prey, with enough force to knock it off its perch and send it crashing into the water. That means dinnertime for the hungry archerfish, and curtains for the luckless insect.

The fish are fiendishly skilled. They can adjust for distance, opening and closing their mouths to ensure that the jet strikes with the maximum possible force.

Now a new study has shown that they can still reliably bring down their targets even over surprisingly large distances.

Morgan Burnette and Miriam Ashley-Ross of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina presented spotted archerfish with insect targets at different distances. The closest prey were 2.3 body lengths away, and the furthest were 5.8 body lengths away.

When given the choice, the fish did prefer to go for closer targets, which are presumably easier. But they were remarkably good at hitting the distant ones.

Even at the maximum distance, the fish's jets hit their targets with only a 15% decrease in force. This was still enough to dislodge them.

The human equivalent would be spitting at something around 10m away, and hitting it with enough force and accuracy to bring it down.

The results are published in the journal Zoology.