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Fish Soundings

NSF Award:

Collaborative Research: Sound Source Localization by Fishes  (University of Washington)

Collaborative Research: Sound Source Localization by Fishes  (Loyola University of Chicago)

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Midshipman fish use sound to locate each other. Males, for instance, emit sounds that help females locate them. Through a series of experiments, scientists have discovered how these fish pinpoint sound sources underwater. Specifically, they discovered that the fish localize complex sound sources using the direction of acoustic particle motion.

These findings will provide a better understanding of how fish identify biologically relevant sound sources in variable and complex acoustic environments. The results could also provide a better understanding of the constraints of these environments and how they shape the behavior of the organism by affecting the evolution of communication signals and sensory receiver systems.

The question of sound source localization in fish was motivated by early studies of hearing in fish. These studies, done in the 1930s, paved the way for a theory that fish ears are "vector detectors." Fish ears detect the speed and direction of sounds around them. The fish brain then processes these signals to determine the location of  the sound source. However, until recently, researchers lacked direct evidence for this theory. A multidisciplinary team of scientists that  included physicists, biologists and psychologists showed that fish use local particle motion vectors to approach a sound source. The fish use complex  sound fields to follow the directions of local particle motion vectors, even when these vectors may not point to the sound source.

In addition to the study, NSF funding enabled elementary school teachers to develop hands-on lesson plans and projects based on the midshipman fish's life history and behaviors. The teachers also served as mentors to new teachers in their school districts in Los Angeles and Houston and presented their plans and student research projects at the 2011 National Science Teachers Association Conference. 


  • collage shows midshipman fish, nest sites and eggs
Male midshipmen fish create nests under rocks (top). Females deposit eggs (bottom).
Joseph Sisneros, University of Washington

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