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What a Fish Knows – Jonathan Balcombe

September 13, 2016

That’s a pufferfish looking at you.

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins.
Jonathan Balcombe
Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2016, 304 pgs, $16-27.

We rarely recommend books, but this is a book that should interest everyone, whether you have pet fish, love catching fish, enjoy photographing fish, wonder what life would be like if you were a fish, contemplate your own fishy ancestors 500 million years ago, or simply like to see them on your plate and put them in your mouth.

Natural History Magazine’s Sept’16 issue featured an article by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, drawn from this book. If this blog doesn’t convince you to buy the book, read the article. It will forever change your view of fish, and give you a new perspective the next time you see the Mullet jumping above the surface of Malibu Lagoon.

A few fishy facts:

  • There are more than thirty thousand species of fish―more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined.
  • They can plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, curry favor, deceive one another, and punish wrongdoers. Sound like anyone you know?
  • Their courtship rituals are elaborate; they develop lifelong bonds with their neighbors.
  • Their sexual arrangements vary widely: promiscuity, polygamy, monogamy, mating-for-life. Males may keep harems, defend a territory, spawn in groups, perform sneak copulations, be a “satellite male” or a “sexual pirate.” Males may become females or females become males as the opportunity arises. There are simultaneous hermaphrodites and sequential hermaphrodites. Some males parasitize the female, embedding themselves permanently into her flesh.

A few of the issues it addresses:
Can fish think? Can they recognize the humans looking back at them in their pools and aquariums? How do they learn to navigate their pools, rivers, reefs and oceans – and find their way home?

Dr. Balcombe relates a wonderful story:

During a dive off the southern tip of Japan, veteran diver and photographer Yoji Ookata was surprised to see, at a depth of about eighty feet, a six-foot-wide symmetrical circular pattern in the sand. The mural featured two concentric rings of ripples radiating outward from a center disk. Ookata returned some days later with a film crew, and the mystery of what might have created this exquisite curiosity was soon solved. The geometric “crop circles” were created by a small, quite ordinary-looking male puffer fish (Tetraodontidae). Swimming on his side, while fluttering a pectoral fin, the five-inch puffer spends hours making his masterpiece. He inspects it as he goes, decorating his mural with bits of small shells that he cracks in his mouth before sprinkling them into the central grooves.

Puffefish in his sand 'bower"(Kimiaki Ito, National Geographic)

Pufferfish in his sand ‘bower’ (Kimiaki Ito, National Geographic)

Link to Yoji Ookata YouTube series of still photos of the pufferfish ‘mandala.’
Link to Aysel Güler YouTube action video of pufferfish maintaining his mandala.

Mandalas found since show that no two are the same, they attract female puffers who lay their eggs in the inner circle, the furrows help prevent eggs from being carried away by currents, the crushed shells provide camouflage for the eggs, and the more elaborate the circle, the greater the mating success of the male. Birders familiar with Australia’s Bowerbirds will recognize the similarity of intent and result.

I thought I knew a lot about fish. Then I read What a Fish Knows. And now I know a lot about fish! Stunning in the way it reveals so many astonishing things about the fish who populate planet Earth in their trillions, this book is sure to “deepen” your appreciation for our fin-bearing co-voyagers, the bright strangers whose world we share.
— Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel; named one of Audubon’s 100 Most Influential Conservationists of the 20th Century

Balcombe offers a picture of these underwater creatures as complex and sentient beings. Not only do they have acute senses of sight, hearing, and smell, but they also have the capacity to feel pleasure as well as pain….Balcombe never met a fish pun he didn’t like….This is a lively and surprising work that makes a strong argument for sport and food fishing reform.
— Lisa Peet, Library Journal

We rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave, but their lives are often as rich and complex as our own. Here’s your chance to discover the details.
[Chuck Almdale]

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