A Fish Story

Under-water digital data streams

Unless you read biological journals (and what he-man doesn't?), you may not have stumbled across this biological bit stream (BS).

Actually, I don't subscribe to such periodicals either, but my contacts at Baylor College of Medicine keep me apprised of earth-shattering discoveries.

If this were April, you might think it an April fool’s joke, but as far as I can tell, it's for real. Check the URLs or search the Web for "fish AND FRT". When I searched for the terms, the search engine asked "Did you mean FART?" Can I say that in this magazine?

Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia has coined the acronym FRT (Fast Repetitive Ticks; see Biology Letters, Nov 5, 03 and www.zoology.ubc.ca/~bwilson/publications.html) to describe digital communication among fish. He had expanded on a discovery by Danish scientist Magnus Wahlberg (Aquatic Living Resources; Volume 16, Issue 3, July 2003, Pages 271-275), who first discovered this under water BS (bit streams). By the way, did you know, that the Danes call their breakfast pastries (what we know as "Danish") "Wiener Brød" (Vienna Bread)? I don't know what the Viennese call them. I wonder, if you can even find Danish pastries in Vienna, among all the other delicacies, such as Kaffé mit Schlagober (a dollop of whipped cream), Blackforest Cherry Cake (made with real Kirsch), Schlesises Himmelreich (Silezian Heaven), and Berliner Ballen (called "Hamburger" in Berlin). But back to the fish story, which is only appropriate, when you consider the odor of digested Danish, as well as that of the subject discussed here.

Mr. Wilson's "FRT" refers to the stream of bubbles emitted by herring, when they descend or ascend, or when startled. Mr. Wahlberg first named these sounds "pulsed chirps", seven to 50 chirps, 32 to 133 mS long, on carrier frequencies of 3 to 4 kilo Hertz (not a car rental company, but a unit of cycles per second). Clearly, Mr. Wahlberg was made of sterner stuff than the amusing Mr. Wilson.

If I may be allowed to make a few observations about the reported data -- after all, I usually need much less data to make my observations:

First, it seems clear to me, that these fish are computer literate.

Seven to fifty pulsed chirps emitted at a time indicate that these fish talk in binary code, grouped as hexa-decimal numbers for convenience, just like computers. Seven bits (the number of bits in the old ASCII code) seems to be the minimum recorded by Wahlberg. 50 bits, the maximum measured, seems to be seven bytes of seven bits each, plus a stop bit, to let the other fish know, when the talker is "done". Alternatively, 50 bits could be six bytes of eight bits, framed by one start and one stop bit. We will not really know, until we decode the fishy message.

Next I would look for ways to enlist these fish in the service of the US Navy. We just need to teach the fish how to recognize enemy ships, and slip back to our submarine, and chirp a description through the hull. Better yet, lets send these fish to look for sunken treasure ships. Never mind the Navy. Let them get their own chirpies.

If we give these fish an always-on Internet connection backpack, we could listen to their message anywhere. For example on an island paradise, while sitting on the beach, sipping drinks with umbrellas in them, enjoying our share in the sunken treasures.

Finally, I'd like to caution the biologists to not underestimate these fish. Perhaps they are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. Perhaps it is the herring who have reeled in the scientists.

One (truly) final thought about scientists, who go around looking for, and recording such fishy emissions. How many of these bubbles did Mr. Wahlberg and/or Mr. Wilson sniff, before they concluded, that more investigation was called for?