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Fish hum, grunt, and growl to get their message across

Scientists listen to one deep sea swimmer, seeking new insights on the evolution of communication.

Researchers revealed that midshipman fish can "talk" to each other.

Andy Bass

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It’s only a humble hum or an undistinguished grunt or growl. But to a midshipman fish, it’s effective social communication. Hums help the boys get the girls. Grunts and growls warn off would be trespassers.

Scientists have studied animal communication for decades. Now, for the first time, a research team has traced the underlying neurobiology that makes the fish talk possible.

It’s an early step in an emerging research field that seeks insight into the evolution of behavior from the perspective of neurobiology. In recent years, visiting scientists have pursued this quest at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass. Last week, MBL reported the results of work by Andrew Bass of Cornell University, Edwin Gilland of Howard University, and Robert Baker of New York University.

According to MBL, the researchers have shown “that the sophisticated neural circuitry that midshipman [fish] use to vocalize develops in a similar region of the central nervous system as the circuitry that allows a human to laugh or a frog to croak.”

The research team also published technical details of its work last week in the journal Science. If you want to hear the fishes’ hums, grunts, and growls go to mbl.edu/news and click on the press release about “When fish talk.” It has links to the sound files.

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