Fish used Voice to Communicate for 155 Million Years, Just Like Birds

A new study finds that fish are far more likely to communicate with sound than generally thought – and some fish have been doing this for at least 155 million years.

“We’ve known for a long time that some fish make sounds,” said lead author Aaron Rice, a researcher at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “But fish sounds were always perceived as rare oddities. We wanted to know if these were one-offs or if there was a broader pattern for acoustic communication in fishes.”

Rice is first author of “Evolutionary Patterns in Sound Production Across Fishes,” published Jan. 20 in the journal Ichthyology and Herpetology.

It was likely assumed fish relied primarily on other means of communication, from color signals and body language to electricity. But recent discoveries have demonstrated fish even have dawn and dusk choruses, just like birds.

“They’ve probably been overlooked because fishes are not easily heard or seen, and the science of underwater acoustic communication has primarily focused on whales and dolphins,” said Cornell evolutionary neuroscientist Andrew Bass.

The authors looked at a branch of fishes called ray-finned fishes. These are vertebrates (having a backbone) comprising 99% of the world’s known species of fishes. They found 175 families that contain two-thirds of fish species that do, or are likely to, communicate with sound. By examining the fish family tree, study authors found that sound was so important, it evolved at least 33 separate times over millions of years.

“Thanks to decades of basic research on the evolutionary relationships of fishes, we can now explore many questions about how different functions and behaviors evolved in the approximately 35,000 known species of fishes,” said co-author William E. Bemis ’76, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We’re getting away from a strictly human-centric way of thinking. What we learn could give us some insight on the drivers of sound communication and how it continues to evolve.”

The scientists used three sources of information: existing recordings and scientific papers describing fish sounds; the known anatomy of a fish – whether they have the right tools for making sounds, such as certain bones, an air bladder and sound-specific muscles; and references in 19th century literature before underwater microphones were invented.

“Our results strongly support the hypothesis that soniferous behavior is ancient,” the team wrote in their paper. “Together, these findings highlight the strong selection pressure favoring the evolution of this character across vertebrate lineages.”

Some fish groups were chattier than others, with toadfish and catfish amongst the most verbose groups. However, Rice and the team caution that their analysis only shows the presence of vocalizing fish rather than the presence of absence – it may just be that we just haven’t listened hard enough to hear the other groups out yet.

As for what they’re trying to say, fish are probably jabbering about food, warnings of danger, social happenings (including territorial arguments), and of course, sex. But who knows what other fishy secrets they may recite!

Some researchers have even been trying to use fish songs as underwater siren calls to beckon fish back to rejuvenating coral reefs.

“Fish do everything. They breathe air, they fly, they eat anything and everything – at this point, nothing would surprise me about fishes and the sounds that they can make,” said Rice.