Flatulence may be a social faux pas for us, but for some fish it appears to be of great social value. Herring seem to fart to communicate with their neighbours at night – a discovery which scooped researchers Dr Bob Batty (Scottish Association for Marine Science), Dr Ben Wilson (University of British Columbia) and Professor Larry Dill (Simon Fraser University) an Ig Nobel award in Biology.
The prizes, which are an antidote to next week’s more serious Nobels, reward research that makes people laugh, then think (www.improbable.com). They are announced this evening at Harvard University, Massachusetts in front of a 1200 strong audience. Bob Batty and Larry Dill are attending the ceremony to pick up their prize.
The British/Canadian team became interested in fish farts when they noticed captive herring releasing gas bubbles from their rears at night. Using infrared lighting with video cameras and underwater microphones, they monitored the herring behaviour round the clock. “We heard these rasping noises, which sound like high pitched raspberries, only ever at night, whenever we saw tiny gas bubbles coming from the herrings’ bottoms”, reminisces Bob Batty.
The fish, which can gulp air from the surface and store it in their swim bladder, can release it through a duct to their anus. Although it was already known that herring could release large clouds of bubbles to confuse predators, releasing small bubbles intermittently when not under threat had not been seen or heard before.
‘We also noticed that individual fish release more bubbles the more fish are in the tank with them. In other words it seems that herring like to fart in company’ says lead author Ben Wilson.
The noises are only heard at night and may act as a source of communication within the shoal. Batty speculates that fish at the front of a shoal fart to direct other shoal members in a particular direction, keeping the school together at night. During the day these fish use visual information, such as the pattern of light reflected off specialised mirror-like scales, to communicate.
Note to Editors
The research was reported earlier this year: Wilson B, Batty RS, Dill LM (2004) Pacific and Atlantic herring produce burst pulse sounds. PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF LONDON SERIES B-BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES 271: S95-S97 Suppl. 3The work was funded through the SAMS Northern Seas Programme by the UK Natural Environment Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust and the NSERC, Canada. The Bamfield Marine Science Centre also provided some funding.
The Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) – founded 1884 – is a Scottish charity committed to promoting, delivering and supporting high-quality independent research and education in marine science. SAMS is a Collaborative Centre of the UK Natural Environment Research Council and an Academic Partner in UHI Millennium Institute. For further information see our website www.sams.ac.ukDr Ben Wilson has just accepted a post as principal investigator at SAMS Ardtoe, where he plans to continue this research. He is particularly interested in exploring the related question of the impact of noise pollution on fish.
Please contact Dr Anuschka Miller Tel: 01631 750233 or