The research, led by Chris Fulton from The Australian National University, appears in the journal Coral Reef.
Fulton says he first noticed the wing-like fins during surveys of coral reefs in Australia.
"We were surveying different reef fish across different gradients on the Great Barrier Reef and we noticed that some of the ones that lived in the very shallow areas were very abundant -- lots of individuals of just a few species," Fulton said.
"When we looked at those few species in a bit more detail, we noticed something a bit unique about their fins -- a wing-shaped fin."
The wing shape allows fish such as parrotfish, wrasse and surgeonfish to fly through the water using a figure-of-eight pattern.
"Most fish when they move their pectoral fins on the side of their body, they move them just like you row a boat -- they have a power stroke and then a recovery stroke," Fulton says. "By doing that they are only creating thrust half the time."
He says fish with wing-shaped fins keep them spread at all times and sweep in a figure-of-eight pattern that constantly generates thrust.
"They do this by inclining their fins at just the right angle to create lift from the water flowing over the fin, similar to the way air moves over the wing of a bird to propel them through their air," Fulton said.
Fulton believes the extra push that the wing-like fins give the fish helps them survive in the shallow and sometimes turbulent waters surrounding coral reefs.
"They're dealing with waves crashing on to them all day, everyday, and those crashing waves create water motions that are extreme," he said.
"If you scaled up the differences in the thickness of water to the thickness of air ... it would be like us dealing with cyclone force winds everyday."
Chris and his colleagues, David Bellwood from James Cook University and Peter Wainwright from the University of California, Davis, observed the fish swimming around the reef and in flow tanks, which allowed them to record the fish's movement on high-speed video cameras.
"We set up a high-speed video, which records about 200 frames per second and we run them at different speeds in the tank and record the motion of their fins on the high-speed camera," he said.
They found some species could move at up to 10 body lengths per second. By comparison, Olympic champions reach speeds of just 1.3 body lengths per second, and then only for the brief 22 seconds of the 50-meter freestyle sprint.
Fulton says the U.S. Office of Naval Research has taken interest in the research, looking to use it in the development of future remote control submersibles.
"Things that we are learning from 50 million years of evolution have taught us that fish are a very good solution," he said.
But Fulton doesn't envisage Olympic swimmers using the winged-shaped technique in the near future.
"It may give us ideas for a new swimming stroke in a human, how to make fine adjustments in the swimming stroke at different speeds," he said. "But humans are constrained by our rather clumsy sort of limbs that aren't really made for water."