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Just In: Fish Gab A Lot

By John Salak


Fishing is a wonderful balm for the body and soul. Precision and knowledge are required as well as varying levels of physical skills. Then there is the social aspect of tossing a line. It’s there if desired. And, of course, fishing gets people out of their homes and offices and into nature, which is usually the ticket for relieving stress.

Yet with all these possible benefits, fishing can generate agita for some if the fish aren’t biting. As the old saying goes: fishing doesn’t mean catching.

Fishers know there can be all sorts of reasons for an off day. A change in weather is one culprit, so is having the wrong equipment, bait, lure or fly. Sometimes presentation or techniques are wanting, not to mention the headaches generated by unwanted nests or knots in lines or simply getting hooked up on a rock, underwater log or overhanging tree branch.

Those who fish regularly—be it in the ocean, shore, lake or river—understand this all too well. But what if there is another reason for a poor day’s catch?

Cornell University researchers may have unwittingly come up with a clue that many fishermen have long suspected but couldn’t prove. Apparently, there is a lot more happening in rivers, oceans, lakes and ponds than meets the eye or perhaps better said are heard in the ear. Fish do a lot of communicating under the surface and have been for 150 million years or so. The findings are every fisherman’s nightmare.

“We’ve known for a long time that some fish make sounds,” announced Aaron Rice, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But fish sounds were always perceived as rare oddities. We wanted to know if these were one-offs or if there was a broader pattern for acoustic communication in fishes.”

The answer is yes and, perhaps more importantly, fish gab is evolving. “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,” added co-author William E. Bemis. “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.”

Exactly how this communication has evolved and is fully executed by fish is still under examination. But it is undoubtedly happening and needs to be studied further for all sorts of reasons, the researchers explained. “Sound communication is often overlooked within fishes, yet they make up more than half of all living vertebrate species,” noted Andrew Bass, co-lead author and the Horace White Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences. “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.”

Okay, the bigger question on every fisherman’s lip is exactly what are our finny friends talking about? Rice bets they talk about pretty much the same things people gab about: sex, food and housing. He went on to note that some fish are even named after the sounds they make, such as grunts, croakers, hogfish, squeaking catfish and trumpeters, which probably should have indicated more was afoot with the specimens than the weird sounds they emitted.

For the erstwhile fishermen, this undoubtedly fuels fears that one flounder is telling others to stay away from that tantalizing bit of clam hanging off a hook or perhaps a largemouth bass is flagging his nearby kin that that dangling wacky worm rig should be avoided at all costs.

“This introduces sound communication to so many more groups than we ever thought,” said Rice. “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.”

No disrespect to the good academic, but Rice has nothing on what fishermen believe their objects of desire are capable of.

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