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Emerging Science Note/Farting Fish

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports that herring might be using something that resembles flatulence to communicate.


GELLERMAN: Coming up: cats gone wild. The feral felines of rural Delaware. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Cynthia Graber.


GRABER: Scientists have recently found that fish may be communicating with each other using what can best be described as flatulence. Ben Wilson, a biologist at the University of British Columbia, made the surprising discovery. He was researching how herring respond to different kinds of noises, such as whale sounds. And as part of his experiment he placed a microphone in a tank filled with herring.

Late one night, while he was working in his lab, Wilson heard a strange high-pitched noise come over a pair of loudspeakers attached to the mic. At first, he thought it was a practical joke, but then, he discovered that when he heard the sound he could also see a stream of bubbles coming from an opening on the fishes’ body near its anus. Wilson and his colleagues called the sounds: fast repetitive ticks, or FRTs.

Herrings emit these FRTs at night, and they emit them at a more frequent rate as the concentration of herring climbs. Wilson says the sound frequency of the FRT’s is within a range that herring can hear. So he thinks FRTs might be used for communication as the massive schools of fish swim at night through pitch-black waters. Researchers tested whether these sounds are in response to fear, but herring didn’t change the number of FRTs when exposed to shark scent in the water.

And that’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Cynthia Graber.


GELLERMAN: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Duke Ellington “The Mooche” DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS WORLD FAMOUS ORCHESTRA (VOL. 2) (Hindsight – 1992)]



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