You could say Jonathan Balcombe wrote the book on what a fish knows. The author, scientist, and renowned speaker has expended considerable energy exploring the depths of how these underwater animals think, feel and function. Despite popular misconception, fish are not unfeeling beings driven solely by instinct; in fact, humans have a lot more in common with our finned friends than you might think.
Jonathan’s most recent book, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, busts many myths that surround these ancient creatures, and reveals the complex lives of water-dwelling species.
To get a better understanding of the incredible world of fish, we asked Jonathan some of our most pressing questions. Here’s what he had to say:
What has surprised you the most about your research on fish? How has it changed the way you think about/treat fish?
Before I set out to write What a Fish Knows, I didn’t need any convincing about the intrinsic value of fishes, or that they deserved to not be abused or harmed by us. Nevertheless, in delving into the published scientific literature about fishes, and in some of the personal accounts I received from correspondents, I came to realize just how remarkable these beings are. With four years of research into scientific discoveries of this enormously diverse and successful collection of vertebrates, I have become convinced that fishes are no less worthy of our respect and moral concern than any other animals.
Few people are aware of fishes’ rich and complex lives, and humanity continues to malign fishes in astronomical numbers (perhaps in the trillions). Experts estimate we have lost half of all marine life since 1970, and the plunder continues today. Enlightened awareness fuels social change; armed with newfound knowledge, we can show respect and restraint towards aquatic life (as well as terrestrial). And we must, if we wish to have a secure and livable future.
What inspired you to write a book about fish?
I was between books and trolling (sorry) for a new idea. Over lunch with a friend at a vegan restaurant in Washington, DC, the idea for a book on fishes suddenly popped into my head. I don’t recall what we were talking about that triggered it, but I immediately realized that there was a great need for a fish advocacy book.
In my professional work (I serve as Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, and Associate Editor of the new open-access journal Animal Sentience), I was aware of some of the remarkable abilities of fishes, and how little the public knew about their rich lives. I was also acutely aware that fishes are, collectively, the most maligned of all vertebrate animals. These conditions were a great inspiration to me, and I knew immediately that I must write this book.
Why do you think fish are so misunderstood?
Relatively speaking, fishes are alien to our sensibilities. They evolved in a very different physical milieu to ours. Living in water, fishes don’t trigger our sympathies the way mammals do. We can’t hear the sounds they make when they are upset or in pain, and they don’t blink (they don’t need to since their eyes are constantly bathed in water). It was only in the 20th Century that technological advances in SCUBA and underwater photography that were able to witness the complexities of fish life. Little wonder that most humans continue to think, falsely, that fishes are primitive and dim.
Can you share a few little-known facts about fish?
Here are just a few:
- Fishes can believe: Various fishes fall for the same optical illusions we fall for, indicating that a fish has beliefs and that these beliefs, like ours, may be fallible.
- Fishes can work together: On reefs, a hungry grouper fish will use a headshake signal to recruit a moray eel to go hunting. Working as a pair, they each have higher per capita hunting success than hunting alone. Groupers will also point to hidden prey, seeking to get the eel’s attention. Such ‘referential signaling’ is only known from a handful of other, big-brained animals.
- Fishes remember: Fish have good memories, recognizing preferred shoal-mates probably for life. A recent study showed that archerfishes recognize individual human faces.
- Fishes use tools: Captive cods showed innovation and tool-use when some began to use the plastic tags on their backs to hook into a dangling food dispenser loop to get food slightly faster than if they tugged the loop with their mouths.
- Fishes are smart: Cleaner fishes outscored great apes (chimpanzees and orangutans) and monkeys (and a fish researcher’s four-year-old daughter) on a cognitive task involving ephemeral and permanent food sources.
- Fishes communicate in many ways: Herrings communicate by farting. (no kidding!)
- Fishes feel pleasure: Groupers, manta rays, moray eels, and various sharks are among many kinds of fishes that will approach trusted divers to be caressed.