Friday, 18 July 2008

Singing with the Fishes

Fish Vocalisations are very old indeed

American scientists have localised the part of a fishes brain that proceses vocalisations, or 'noises', if you prefer. I always enjoy reading stories like this, where you just say to yourself 'how long has that been going on?' and more importantly, 'why are they doing that?'. I'm not an ichthyologist, but I do find this fascinating. Although there are a few examples of dumbing down for mass consumption in the article.

(Just so you know, I do read other things than the BBC Science news website, but that one has the most convenient links to stuff).

I understand the need to do this, I know many experts in a scientific field who speak to everyone is if they have a similar understanding/appreciation of their chosen field as they do, which they rarely ever do. But this isn't limited to scientists, even though they get the most flack for such behavior. Many people do it, and if you call them on it they can get angry, which is unfair.
My Barber insists on talking to me about sport whenever I go there. I don't know about sport, I don't care about sport, I certainly don't have the necessary appreciation of any sport to sustain a valid two-way conversation on the subject for a reasonable amount of time. And yet he persists. The last time I went, he talked to the customer before me for twenty minutes about house prices and things on TV, but talked to me about sport. I wouldn't mind so much, but the customer before me was Colin Jackson, the strangely camp former athlete and sports broadcaster. But I didn't say anything yet again. It's surprising how reluctant you get to criticise someone when they're holding sharp blades next your face. But I digress.

So they've found the vocal centre in fish. Some people may be surprised that fish make noise at all. The article addresses that.
"Andrew Bass from Cornell University, who is the lead author of the paper, said: "You'll hear frogs calling, birds singing and we hear this all the time - we are familiar with this.But I think it's fair to say that most people are unaware of the fact that many fish use sound for social communication."
A reasonable point, but I think this is oversimplified bordering on patronizing. Most fish, lets be honest, don't make any noise detectable by humans. If they did, aquariums would be a lot less popular. And I doubt fishing could ever be described as relaxing if every time you caught one it flopped around, shrieking in mindless agony. And even if most fish did make noises, lets not forget they live in a completely different medium to us air breathers (some people in the past have used the term oxygen breathers, which is inaccurate as fish breathe oxygen too, just oxygen that's dissolved in water, which is really an unimportant point to make but I feel better for doing it, and it's my blog, so deal with it!). Fish live in water, we don't, people don't habitually dunk their heads in rivers or the sea to listen to the fish. And sound travels better underwater as it's a denser medium, so fish wouldn't have to make as much effort to be heard as we do.
I think it's the borderline eerie silence of fish that makes people treat them differently to other animals. It's very hard to anthropomorphise a fish. Some 'vegetarians' seem to believe that fish are a form of plant, whereas other people are happy to eat innocent fish as long as no playful mammals were harmed in the process, i.e. 'Dolphin friendly tuna'. I doubt any Tuna are particularly friendly towards dolphins, I imagine they think of them the same way as right-wingers in this country think of immigrants, "Bloody Mammals, coming down here, taking our jobs". Actually, that probably doesn't happen.
So yeah, fish aren't normally credited with any vocal skill, but that's wrong apprently.

"The closely related toadfish and midshipman fish are nocturnal, living along the north-west coast of the US and Canada. Professor Bass said: "They make different kinds of sounds in different social contexts. Just as birds will use one call to attract a mate and another call to scare a rival off, the fish do exactly the same thing. A deep hum lures females to a male's nest; a sharp grunt is used to defend territory".

I heard those fish on a nature programme once, they sound like someone tuning up a rusty Oboe. It's kind of unsettling. But thanks to these fish, they've been able to track the evolutionary origins of vocalisations. Apparently, the team were stunned when they found that the vocal centres of frogs, birds and fish were all in the same place. I would question that, seeing as all three have completely different brain shapes, but they probably mean relative to brain configuration. And they must have guessed that it would be the case that they're in the same area, as they had to insert the probes into the brain to find the region, so they must have thought to put them in the relevant spot. I doubt they used an MRI machine, as that requires the subject to be completely motionless. If they managed to get a water tank with a fish in an MRI machine, and somehow got it to remain completely still while also making noises, give them the Nobel prize right now, they clearly deserve it.

But according to their research, the fish do have vocal centres, and because fish development can be traced much further back in time than most other species, they claim that vocalisations originated around 400 million years ago, around the time bony fish first appeared. So vocalisation is very old indeed. To me, this is evidence in favour of evolution. Because when the first sea creature crawled out on to land all those millions of years ago, why did he do it? Competition for resources? To avoid predators? Now, there's the possibility he just got out to get some bloody peace and quiet. And I do mean to say 'he', as if everyone is nattering away constantly, it's always the men who run away and hide. This may have been the very first case of the man escaping to the shed to avoid the gossip. And as he lay there suffocating to death on the sand, I'm sure he was glad it was quiet.

So let's hear it for the noisy fish, as they may have been the cause of our existence. And I think this is true, somewhere in our genes, there's an ancient memory of the babble of fish, and what it led us to, and in recent times we've subconsciously been paying homage to it. How else do you explain these things?

Singing fish

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

On the subject of "how long has that been going on?" how long have people thought it a good idea to not only make, singing fish, but by one, and THEN video it and put it on the internet! This isn't an isolated incident, there are clearly loads of these things!

Anyway, back to the science. Yes it does irritate me how miss understood radiation can be. Sometimes I have to remind myself how silly my instincts are. And I think that's what it comes down to really, survival instinct. Having been shocked by mains electricity I have to forcibly remind myself that disconnected wires don't residually contain current.

Lastly, I love your image of a fish in an MRI =D

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