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NatGeo: Fish Communicate by Farting

By 10.20.11

No matter what else you see today, this is certain to be the best video about herring farts. Everything you need to know about this NatGeo clip can be gleaned from the YouTube page:

Herring have a secret, and funny, way of communicating with each other — by farting. They just have to hope neighboring predators aren’t listening in. [YouTube via UniqueDaily]

Humans can also communicate by farting. It’s actually my preferred method for reviewing new CBS comedies.

If you want to know more about fish farts — and who doesn’t? — I will happily direct you to the 2003 U.K. study that first revealed the phenomenon:

This intriguing idea comes from scientists who discovered that herring create a mysterious underwater noise by farting. Researchers suspect herring hear the bubbles as they’re expelled, helping the fish form protective shoals at night. It’s the first ever study to suggest fish communicate by breaking wind.

The study’s findings, now published online in the U.K. science journal Biology Letters, reveal that Atlantic and Pacific herring create high-frequency sounds by releasing air from their anuses.

“We know [herring] have excellent hearing but little about what they actually use it for,” said research team leader Ben Wilson, a marine biologist at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, British Columbia, Canada. “It turns out that herring make unusual farting sounds at night.”

Especially after they eat at Taco Bell.

Wilson and his colleagues named the phenomenon Fast Repetitive Tick, which makes for the rather mischievous acronym, FRT. But unlike the human version, these FRTs are thought to bring the fish closer together.

This is my new favorite science article ever.

Two teams carried out the research in Canada and Britain. One team studied Pacific herring in Bamfield, British Columbia, while the other focused on Atlantic herring in Oban, Scotland. The fish were caught locally and transferred to large laboratory tanks where their behavior was monitored using hydrophones and infrared video cameras.

The fish were found to produce high-frequency sound bursts up to 22 kilohertz. The noise was always accompanied by a fine stream of bubbles.

“In video pictures we can see the bubbles coming out of the anal duct at the same time,” said Robert Batty, senior research scientist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban. “It sounds very much like someone blowing a high-pitched raspberry.”

Further tests revealed these outbreaks of “flatulence” are not a response to fear or feeding. When high concentrations of shark scent were introduced to the tanks, there was no noticeable increase in bubbles or sound. Similarly, unfed herring maintained the same level of emissions.

So if fish wore pants, they wouldn’t crap them when sharks showed up. Good to know.

“The evidence suggests it’s not gut gas that’s responsible,” Batty said. “If you starve the fish, they still produce this sound.” Instead of gas, he says the fish use air gulped from the surface which is then stored in their swim bladders and expelled through a duct with an opening next to the anus.

I love that there are teams of scientists studying fish farts. “So what do you do?” “Well, recently I’ve been looking at a lot of herring anuses.”

What seems to trigger the noise is darkness and high fish densities, suggesting that herring use farting as a means of communication.

Clupeid fish, like herring, anchovies, and sprats, can detect sound frequencies up to around 40 kilohertz, way beyond the hearing range of most other fish. (The normal range of human hearing is 20 to 20,000 kilohertz.) So a method of nighttime communication using pulses of air would be extremely useful. It would enable herring to maintain contact after dark, but without giving their position away to predatory fish.

Of course, sharks have an excellent sense of smell, making the herring farts literally SBD.

It might seem an amusing idea to us that herring communicate using farts. But for herring and the mammals that prey on them, FRTs may signal safety—or the next meal.

Man, I could read scientific studies of farts all day.


TAGSFARTSNATGEONATIONAL GEOGRAPHICsciencestudies

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