Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Fish are far more likely to communicate with sound

There’s a whole lot of talking going on beneath the waves.

Sound production by fishes has been recognized for millennia. It is typically regarded as comparatively rare. In a new study, scientists aimed to determine if these were one-offs or if there was a broader pattern for acoustic communication in fishes.

The study by Cornell University studied ray-finned fishes. They found 175 families that contain two-thirds of fish species that do, or are likely to, communicate with sound. What’s more, some fish have been doing this for more than 155 years.

When scientists studied their (fish) family tree, they found that sound was so important it evolved at least 33 separate times over millions of years.

Co-author William E. Bemis ’76, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said, “Thanks to decades of basic research on the evolutionary relationships of fishes, we can now explore many questions about how different functions and behaviors evolved in the approximately 35,000 known species of fishes. We’re getting away from a strictly human-centric way of thinking. What we learn could give us some insight on the drivers of sound communication and how it continues to evolve.”

Audio from a Midshipman.
Credit: Cornell University

Andrew Bass, co-lead author and the Horace White Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said, “Sound communication is often overlooked within fishes, yet they make up more than half of all living vertebrate species. They’ve probably been overlooked because fishes are not easily heard or seen, and the science of underwater acoustic communication has primarily focused on whales and dolphins. But fishes have voices, too.”

But what do they communicate?

Scientists noted that they mostly talk about sex and food.

Lead author Aaron Rice said“The fish are either trying to attract a mate, defend a food source or territory, or let others know where they are. Even some of the common names for fish are based on the sounds they make, such as grunts, croakers, hogfish, squeaking catfish, and trumpeters.”

Audio from a Longspine squirrelfish.
Image: Cornell University

“Fish do everything. They breathe air, they fly, they eat anything and everything – at this point, nothing would surprise me about fishes and the sounds that they can make.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Aaron N. Rice et al. Evolutionary Patterns in Sound Production across Fishes. DOI: 10.1643/i2020172

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