Underwater Noises – Do Fish Make Sounds?

(Last Updated On: January 25, 2019)
Do Fish Make Sounds?

Do fish make sounds? And if so, what kind of sounds do they make? We’ll answer these questions and more in this post.

Do Fish Make Sounds?

Until the early 2000s, most researchers believed that fish were silent, even though scientists have long known that fish communicate through relatively complex body language, electrical impulses, smell, and taste. Fish can even communicate emotions by changing the hues of their gills, and some can even generate electric light through their organs, a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

However, researchers have since been clued in to the fact that the noise of the bubbles generated by scuba masks were making it impossible to hear more subtle noises underwater. When they finally ditched the scuba gear and replaced it with an underground microphone called a hydrophone, they were shocked to discover that, yes! Most fish do make sounds! Who knew?

Now, fish sound researchers have learned their lesson and switched over to rebreather gear, which essentially means that they breath in their already exhaled air rather then shoot it out into the water. This high tech gear contains a microprocessor that gently releases exhaled air only when needed, in order to reduce underwater noise pollution as much as possible. The result is no bubbles, so they can now hear fish sounds live.

What Kind of Sounds Do Fish Make?

While not all fish make sounds, it turns out that most of them do. There is estimated to be over 1,000 species that make sounds as a way of communicating among themselves. Much like human beings might use a scream to convey fear or a laugh to convey happiness, fish use different sounds in a many different ways. Meanwhile, some types of fish, like goldfish, have superior hearing but don’t make any sounds whatsoever.

What do they use them for? Certain sounds are used to attract mates or during spawning, while other sounds might be used to ward off predators or other types of territorial invaders. In addition, much like humans, fish can either make sounds purposefully, or they might just slip out unintentionally when the fish are swimming or feeding. Think the human equivalent of a chomping sound. In addition, different types of fish produce different sound frequencies, which means that scientists have recently set their sights on being able to identify fish simply by listening to the sounds they produce.

What sounds do fish make? Well, fish are actually capable of producing quite a variety of nuanced sounds.  They make noises that resemble grunts, snorts, hums, hoots, and even a sort of purr. Impressive, no? Furthermore, even though not all fish species are capable of producing sounds, all fish can hear. Essentially, even if they can’t produce sounds themselves, they can likely interpret their neighbor.

How Do Fish Make Sounds?

The question remains: how do they do it? Well, it’s kind of complicated. Basically, fish produce different sounds for different reasons by using different mechanisms. All species of fish produce a different type of sound. Nonetheless, this can be broadly narrowed down to three main bodily functions that fish use to produce audible noise.

This first way that fish produce sounds is called “drumming.” Fish do this by using a sonic muscle to drum on an air-filled sac called the swim bladder. The swim bladder is used primarily to regulate how buoyant a fish is at any given time, or essentially, when they want to sink or whether they want to float. The more air in the swim bladder, the more buoyant the fish becomes. Sonic muscles are possessed by fish that fall into the Sciaenidae family, like toadfish, silver perch and croakers. These muscles are the fastest contracting muscles ever observed in vertebrates, and thus they produce pulsing noises that range from 45-300 hz. The sound of a fish drumming might resemble drums, purrs, knicks, or even a foghorn, depending on the species.

The second way that fish make noises is to use a process called “stridulation,” which is not unlike what crickets do to produce audible noise. For fish, this sound typically occurs during feeding as a result of hard skeletal parts, like teeth or jaws, being rubbed together. The resulting sounds vibrate at a wide frequency range, but the sounds produced by most species fall between 1000-4000 hz. The types of fish who produce stridatory sounds include marine catfish, sea horses, and the previously mentioned grunts, who will use their handy swim bladders to amplify the sound and produce a lower frequency.

The third and final way that fish can produce audible noise is through the use of “hydrodynamic sound production.” These sounds are ultimately a result of quick changes in direction or speed, and although the noises produced are the natural result of swimming, they may alert predators. But it’s not all bad news. For some species, hydrodynamic sounds might also come in handy during courtship.


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