BLAB: Fish talk ...
colin-allen at tamu.edu
Wed Nov 12 11:05:43 CST 2003
Tiny bubbles? Fish may be talking
By ANNE McILROY
Friday, November 7, 2003 - Page A6
The sound was unmistakably rude. University of British Columbia
biologist Ben Wilson was alone in his lab late one night with a tank full
of herring when he heard what he thought was somebody blowing a
He worried his equipment was acting up or that his friends were playing
a joke on him. He had an underwater microphone in the herring tank, part
of an experiment to see how they reacted to killer whale sounds, and he
turned up the volume on his speaker. The farting sound came again, and
then again over the next few nights. It was so loud that his colleagues
down the hall complained.
"They said I was being rude."
Little did they know that Dr. Wilson was in the midst of discovering
what may turn out to be a new form of communication between fish, one
that will have immense appeal to 10-year-old boys.
Careful observation showed the farting noises were coming from the
herring at a same time as a steady stream of air bubbles was coming out
of their hind ends. His team dubbed the noise Fast Repetitive Tick, or
FRT, and found signs the herring may use it to communicate. They make the
noises more frequently when there are other fish in the tank, and only
at night, when they can't see each other.
Yesterday, Dr. Wilson headed off for a month at sea off the coast of
Alaska to monitor the sounds of herring in the wild. Herring are social,
in that they travel in vast schools with hundreds of thousands of other
"I want to know if they are making these sounds in the wild, and what on
Earth it sounds like," Dr. Wilson says.
What would it smell like? Fish farts probably aren't stinky, Dr. Wilson
says. The air bubbles come from the swim bladder, which herring use for
buoyancy. There is, however, some debate about how herring get gas into
their swim bladders. Some researchers believe it may come from their
Most fish can't hear at the frequency the herring use for their FRTs,
which means they can signal each other without alerting salmon or other
fish that find herring delicious. But humans can hear it.
"If you put your ear up against the tank, you would have heard it, says
Dr. Wilson, who has a link to the sound on his Web site,
He tries to find polite synonyms for fart -- including "digestive system
venting" and "burst pulse sounds." A paper published by the Royal
Society in Britain on his discovery avoided the f-word altogether.
If the herring do use the sounds to communicate, the ability must have
evolved because it helps them to survive. This means that noise pollution
caused by humans could have an impact on the health of herring
Other species of fish have been known to use their swim bladders to
create grunting or buzzing sounds to attract potential sexual partners.
But this is the first time scientists have caught fish farting, says
Dennis Higgs, a biologist at the University of Windsor. "No one thought
these fish made any noise at all."
Do other fish may also make farting noises? "I just don't know," Dr.
More information about the Animals