Animal Emotions

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Fish Use Referential Gesture to Communicate During Hunting

Groupers and coral trout signal the location of hidden prey with their head

Just when you think you've heard it all, researchers have discovered groupers and coral trout using their head to signal the location of hidden prey. The abstract for the original research article can be seen here

In a nutshell, "the researchers found that when a prey fish escaped its hunting party, a grouper occasionally moved over the place where the fugitive prey was hiding. The grouper would then rotate its body so that its head faced downward, and it would shake its head back and forth in the direction of the potential meal, in what researchers call a 'headstand' signal. Coral trout make a similar sign, the researchers found."

The researchers also note that the headstand qualified as a referential gesture because "it was directed toward an object, not useful for any immediate mechanical purpose, aimed at a recipient, seemingly intentional and followed by a voluntary response from the fish’s partner." 

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This is the first observation of the use of a referential gesture by fish. Only great apes and ravens have previously been seen to use this form of communication. It also shows that a large brain is not needed to communicate in this manner. The value of large brains has generally been misinterpreted and over-blown. We also know that fish feel pain (see also). 

Other animals also show amazing and complex communication skills that include their using "language". I'm sure that in the future we will discover more surprises about the amazing cognitive skills of many other animals. 

The teaser image can be seen here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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