Spotlight Book Review--What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

Here is a book review of Jonathan Balcombe's book, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins.
  1. Book Review:

    What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

    by Jonathan Balcombe
    • Publisher: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (stated), First Printing edition (June 7, 2016)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0374288216
    • ISBN-13: 978-0374288211
    ~Longlisted for the 2017 PEN / E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
    ~One of the 10 Best Popular Science Books of 2016: Biological Sciences, Forbes
    ~One of the Week's Best Science Picks, Nature
    ~A "Must Read" Book, The Sunday Times (London)
    ~One of the Best Books of the Year, National Post

    The Pacific Ocean off of Oregon.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    Some books stay with you. Maybe you remember them because the narrative is so real (Chickenhawk by Robert Mason), or maybe it's because the writing is so beautiful and unusual that you memorize lines without realizing it (The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch), or maybe the message is so profound that the book shifts your paradigm and point of view (The Errant Ark by Philippe Diolé). Jonathan Balcombe's book, What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, is going to stay with you. It's going to make you stop and reconsider what you think you know about fish. It's going to haunt you.

    Jonathan Balcombe is no sleepyhead. He has a Ph.D. in ethology (Konrad Lorenz, who won a Nobel Prize in 1973 is considered the founder of ethology--the study of animal behavior particularly in their own habitat) and was formerly "Department Chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University, and Director of Animal Sentience with The Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy," according to his website. He has since written a number of books about animals and recently this thought-provoking book about fish behavior.

    We are reminded early on that fish have been around for over 500 million years. They been evolving and changing long before humans ever hit the earth. He says there are about 33,000 species of fish including both the bony fishes, the vast majority, (teleosts) and the cartilaginous fishes. Oh, and we're killing about one trillion of them per year.

    A stingray, a type of cartilaginous fish.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    And then we learn that there are likely many many more species not yet discovered because 95% of the world's oceans remains unexplored. Throughout the book, Balcombe reminds us how difficult it is to study fish and precisely why so much about fish is unknown: studying aquatic life under water is expensive, technically difficult, and dangerous.

    Furthermore, how do scientists design meaningful research on fish, who have no legs to walk or hands to hold things or a prehensile tail to grasp? Balcombe explains the difficulty of studying animals that are very unlike us and for whom our traditional tests of learning and intelligence, which we might use with dogs or rats or monkeys, do not apply.

    The book is divided into sections on what the fish perceives, feels, thinks, knows, and their breeding behavior, respectively. Balcombe walks us through all the recent (and not so recent) research from all over the world about fish behavior. To illustrate his points, he uses examples from all different species and from all different locations and environments.

    The archerfish (family, Toxotidae), for example, shoots water from beneath the surface of his own watery environment, one to two meters into the air, to nail insects above the water line, make them drop into the water, and become his meal. This fish can shoot one shot or a series of shots like a repeating rifle. Furthermore, the tigerfish (family, Alestidae) jumps out of the water and pulls down flying birds to eat. And Balcombe points out that this is learned behavior, not innate.

    And these two types of fish noted in the book are not the only ones exhibiting this behavior. The giant trevally (family, Carangidae) also hunts flying birds above the water surface. The ferocious, freshwater arowana (family, Osteoglossidae) also hunts above the surface, jumping up to two meters out of the water to catch insects, rodents, monkeys and birds, although whether the prey is moving or not, I can't say.

    Giant Trevally.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    So, let's stop for a second and think about that. If anyone has experience with firearms, then you know that becoming a good shot aiming at a non-moving target is no simple task. It requires good vision, good hand-to-eye coordination, sighting-in a scope on a long gun, and a lot of practice. And some people have some natural talent, not to be discounted.

    Well, how about shooting a moving target? Trapshooting or hunting, for example? That skill requires all of the above, plus leading the target, and if it's a long-range shot, you have to compensate for the effects of wind and of gravity on the projectile.

    If that weren't enough, don't forget that light refracts or bends when it hits water from air. That means, if you're looking up from under water, what you see is, well, not exactly where you think it is.

    So, there are fish that are doing all these calculations under water in their little tiny brains in order to behave this way because they need to eat, and if they can't do this jumping/hunting thing, then they will die. And they are successfully learning this behavior. Kind of impressive.

    Then Balcombe gives us the example of the artistry of some fishes. For example, at 80 feet underwater, some species of male pufferfish create six-foot diameter concentric circular designs in the sand, decorated with bits of shell and crushed coral, in order to attract a female to lay her eggs in the middle. No two of these designs are the same. The pufferfish spends hours creating it with his fins. Is the fish thinking about this?

    A pufferfish.
    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay.

    The bottom line is the author's premise that fish are much more capable and intelligent than previously thought. And once you read through all his examples, it is hard not to agree with him. He does say that there are still some holdouts among scientists who are not ready to accept that fish are smart and have feelings and feel pain. However, if you can get past the historical bias that fish are dumb because...well...they live under water, you'll have a new view of the matter.

    Balcombe reminds us that plenty of fish are vertebrates who have working brains and circulatory systems a lot like other vertebrates. And even among the invertebrates, it's just not so simple to write them off as unfeeling, unknowing dullards who live their lives without a thought in their heads.

    There is enough convincing evidence that the American Veterinary Medical Association continues to revise their position. In 2014, Dr. Stephen Smith, a professor of aquatic medicine and fish health at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, is quoted on the AVMA website that "The veterinary and scientific communities have a responsibility to address the welfare of these fish.”

    So, if you think your fishes aren't too clever, don't feel pain, and don't know you and other household members, then read this book, and think again.


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    Author Profile: Cynthia White

    Cynthia received her BA in English from NYU. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 20 years. Now she is a writer and editor on staff at R2R, where her forum nickname is Seawitch. She admits to knowing how to shoot a gun.

    For 15 years, she kept a dozen freshwater tanks, bred cichlids--Cyphotilapia frontosa--and sold them to pet stores in Calgary. Finally, after years of study, she has come to saltwater side. She lives in British Columbia, Canada, with her husband and three special-needs dogs, a five-minute walk from the Georgia Strait, the Pacific Ocean between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, where the water temperature ranges from about eight degrees C (46F) in the winter to 15 degrees C (60F) in the summer. Bring your dry suit. And some hot coffee.

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