Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water? In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquar
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really liked it
Years ago I had an extraordinary experience with squids when I was snorkelling off an unknown reef very close to a tiny island about 100 yards from shore. If the reef had been known there would have been very few parrotfish and cowfish, both of which are good eating. There would also have been no supermale parrotfish. A supermale is a female that has turned into a male and is double or more the size of the other fish and also much more beautiful and brightly coloured and absolutely delicious to
So I was snorkelling and I saw a little squid, it stayed still in the water and was rapidly changing colour. Then it was joined by another, then another until there were about 7 of them of varying sizes from about the size of your hand up to forearm sized all in a row and all rapidly cycling colours. I called out to my ex to come and see but come slowly not to scare them. I didn’t think they would stay. He swam over and by then there were about 11 squids and it was apparent to both of us that they were staring at me. They were as curious and interested in me as I was in them and they didn’t go away for quite a few minutes. They were no more shy than I was and as I had called my ex, so they had ‘called’ each other. Perhaps it was because no one knows of the reef they live in they weren’t frightened of people, I don’t know.
What I learned from this book:
1. If we thought of fish as we do mammals we would stop thinking of them as ‘other’ and realise that they have the same five senses (plus more). Having the senses means using them and implies learning from experience (don’t touch that sea urchin again, it not only stings, but poisons).
2. That people judge intelligence by how like us the animal thinks. We do too. All those books on animal intelligence are just about measuring how like us the animals solve problems that humans set them.
3. That scientists rail against anthropomorphising animals, but if we did a bit more with fish, if we were more empathetic and understanding we would see that they have personalities, liked to play and not pretend that they can’t feel pain and have no consciousness so it’s ok to come into my shop and say (as plenty of customers do) that they are ‘basically vegetarians’ but eat fish.
Here in the Caribbean, diving is good career. People come every week and want to be taken to see the reefs. The divers nurture relationships with generally-friendly fish like rays, giant groupers (Goliath fish) and some of the sharks so that their clients will have an interesting experience. Not all of these relationships are based on food. They never are with sharks. It would be foolish to feed sharks! But nevertheless, over years the divers and individual sharks get friendly and the sharks come and rub against the divers, much as cats do, and like to be caressed. What’s in it for the fish is the same as what’s in it for the people, it’s entertaining, it’s nice to see friends, what else could it be?
The book, to sum up, was quite boring. I was hoping for more than the author’s conjectures based on our common senses, what is known about fish and their life cycles, and anecdotes (like mine). Few of his assumptions and conclusions were ones that were new to me. I don’t think it’s the fault of the author, it’s just that fishes inner lives are mostly a mystery.
3.5 stars rounded up because the author did his best and at least opened a dialogue into the idea that fish are as deserving as consideration as other animals when it comes to protecting them from pain and harm.
_What A Fish Knows_ was a quick, enjoyable read that veered between being a popular science book on the latest findings on fish behavior, memory, sensory abilities, and intelligence and a book strongly advocating for a kinder, more empathetic treatment of fish (and also essentially never, ever eating fish again). I can understand how one type of writing (fish are both surprisingly intelligent and quite aware of their environment and what happens to them in ways that might surprise most readers)
I will admit that some of the more advocacy type claims made early in the book (such as on page 19, “we’ll explore how fishes are not just sentient, but aware, communicative, social, tool-using, virtuous, even Machiavellian” or on page 20 “[a]nother prejudice we hold against fish is that they are “primitive,” which in this context has a host of unflattering connotations; simple, undeveloped, dim, inflexible, and unfeeling”) made me think twice about reading the book but also, after reading it, deciding I was a bit too hasty, as the author did indeed provide examples of fish tool use, evidence of perhaps friendships among fish and among fish and non-fish, and lots of examples of Machiavellian behavior. It’s not that I thought fish were stupid or dim-witted or was surprised that they had some complex behaviors, but the more emotional aspects of what he wrote I was a little leery of (were the fish being anthromorphized or was this part of a philosophy that granted sentience to just about any animal and what did virtuous mean in this context?).
Another aspect of the book, which the author identified very early on, was his heavily reliance on anecdotes. While studies were definitely mentioned (and documented in the copious bibliography), there were lots and lots of examples, often provided by non-scientists, of fish behavior and intelligence indicating levels of cognition and recognition of individuals (be they other fish or non-fish like pet owners or individual divers) well beyond what most people would think of with regards to fish (a relevant quote on page 6, “I have sought to sprinkle the science with stories of people’s encounters with fishes, and I will be sharing some of these as we go along. Anecdotes carry little credibility with scientists, but they provide insight into what animals may be capable of that science has yet to explore”). They were fun to read and did indicate that so much more research can be done, but I sometimes found myself preferring the studies rather than the stories.
As far as the science of the book goes, most of it was fascinating. The author organized the book into different sections (“what a fish perceives,” “what a fish feels,” “what a fish thinks,” “who a fish knows,” and “how a fish breeds”), each section two or three chapters and filled with lots of fascinating facts.
The reader learns in the “what a fish perceives” section that some fish, such as bluegill, can see predators in a different part of the pond as they use the underside of the water’s surface as a mirror, that seemingly identical looking fish (such as various species of highly territorial damselfish) can distinguish between various individuals owing to distinctive facial patterns of dots and arcs only visible in UV, each pattern as unique as a human fingerprint, some fish (such as American shad and Gulf menhaden) can hear the ultrasonic sounds produced by predatory dolphins while others, such as cods, perches, and plaices, can hear infrasounds as low as 1 Hz, enabling the fish to migrate long distances using the ambient infrasound produced by waves, tides, and currents moving against cliffs, beaches, and reefs. Far from living in a silent realm, some fish have truly remarkable hearing as well as the mental ability to process it; one study with koi showed that the fish could even “discriminate polyphonic music [playing multiple notes simultaneously], discriminate between melodic patterns, and even classify music by artistic genre.” Not just eyesight and hearing are examined but also the sense of smell and electrorecption, the “biological ability to perceive natural electrical stimuli,” such as by electric eels (as an aside, I did not know that South American electric eels weren’t true eels at all but actually of the knifefish family, more closely related to catfish).
The section on fish sensory abilities was not terribly controversial and often backed up some common sense knowledge of fishermen and aquarium owners. The next section, “what a fish feels,” was a bit more, as it often went to heart of people saying that fish don’t feel anything, that they don’t feel pain, that when they look distressed from being handled or hooked it is just a reflex. Early on in the chapter, the author cautioned against “corticocentrism,” the idea that to “possess a humanlike capacity for pain” one must have a neocortex (though quickly acknowledging that few think birds don’t feel pain and also at the same time birds do not possess a neocortex). I feared that the section would be emotional or spiritual or the like (despite the solid science of the previous section), but again I was surprised at the series of very good studies on fish sensory capabilities and the solid science behind assertions that fish experience pain, react to it, and plan to avoid it in the future if possible. Also to my surprise the section didn’t just dwell on fish pain and stress but also fish joy, providing studies (and a lot of anecdotal examples) of fish experiencing joy and playing even as adults.
I think my favorite section was next, “what a fish thinks.” By this point I was swept away by some of the fascinating studies and anecdotes of the surprising mental abilities of fish. My favorite by far was the example of the frillfin goby (a fish of the intertidal zones of both eastern and western Atlantic shores). This fish prefers to stay safe in isolated tide pools at low tides, but when danger threatens it can leap with a high degree of success to neighboring pools. As studies showed, the fish does not sense these pools from its own pool, but remarkably “memorizes the topography of the intertidal zone – fixing in its mind the layout of depressions that will form future pools in the rocks at low tide – while swimming over them at high tide.” Also in this section the author demolishes popular conceptions of goldfish memories measured in seconds, provided an example of tool use discovered in 2009 (orange-dotted tuskfish near Palau using “rapid head-flicks and well-timed releases” to open clams against undersea rocks), showing how in one study vermiculate river stingrays in South America (a freshwater species) could problem solve to get food treats, even in several cases “moving away from a strongly attractive cue – the smell of food at one end of the tube [used in the experiment] – and trying the other side…not a trivial a thing…it means they have to work against their natural impulse,” and how archerfish (able to spray jets of water up to ten feet through the air to help them prey on insects) are able to get better at aiming not just from practice but actually watching other archerfish hunt, “a form of grasping something from the perspective of another.”
“Who a fish knows” was fascinating, going into aspects of fish sociology. The reader learns the differences between shoals and schools (shoals are groups of fish gathered together and socially interacting but each swim independently and may be facing different directions, while a school is more disciplined with the fish moving at the same speed and in the same direction at a fairly constant distance from one another). Another excellent section, the author covered predator inspection (behavior that lets a predatory fish know it has been spotted by other fish and highly suggestive it should move on) and two extremely interesting sections on cleaner fish and also on cooperative hunting (my favorite example being cooperative hunting between groupers and moray eels, with the groupers actually able to understand and have the moray eels in turn understand pointing, this accomplished by a grouper doing a headstand over a spot where a prey has hidden; this is a “referential gesture, which outside of humans, has only previously been attributed to great apes and ravens”). There was also coverage of fish culture, that non-inherited information passed on by “informed individuals” such as migration routes, ideal forage spots, which predators to avoid, etc. may be lost in overfished species and could be lost forever, complicating recovery efforts.
The last section, “how a fish breeds,” was much as I expected it, covering fish breeding, but was still interesting, covering the different ways fish are actually care givers and may protect eggs and young (the cichlids of the great lakes of east Africa get lots of attention) as well as elaborate gender hierarchies and courtship rituals. It included the latest research, such as the 2012 discovery of elaborate, geometric “crop circles” created by male pufferfish off the southern tip of Japan, huge mandalas up to six feet wide and decorated by shells, created by fish only five inches long.
The book closed (after a horrifying section on fishing) with another appeal that fish are deserving of empathy. “In those flat, glassy eyes we struggle to see anything more than a vacant stare…[t]heir unblinking eyes – constantly bathed in water and thus in no need of lids – amplify the illusion that they feel nothing.”
It was a good book and I am definitely glad I read it.