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News Release 08-121

Sorry, Charlie, You and Nemo Aren't the Only Fish That Talk

New research shows that vocal communication evolved from ancient fish species

An artist's representation of the midshipman fish singing to attract a mate.

An artist's representation of the midshipman fish singing to attract a mate.


July 17, 2008

View a video interview with biologist Andrew Bass of Cornell University and a guided tour of fish communicating.

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Talking fish are no strangers to Americans. From the comedic portrayal of "Mr. Limpet" by Don Knotts, to the children's Disney favorite, "Nemo," fish can talk, laugh and tell jokes--at least on television and the silver screen. But can real fish verbally communicate? Researchers say, "Yes," in a paper published in the July 18 issue of the journal Science. Further, the findings put human speech--and social communications of all vertebrates--in evolutionary context.

By mapping the developing brain cells in newly hatched midshipman fish larvae and comparing them to those of other species, Andrew Bass and his colleagues, Edwin Gilland of Howard University and Robert Baker of New York University, found that the neural network behind sound production in vertebrates can be traced back through evolutionary time to an era long before the first animals ventured onto dry land. The neural circuitry that enables human beings to verbally communicate--not to mention birds to sing, and frogs to "ribbit"--was likely laid down hundreds of millions of years ago with the hums and grunts of fish.

According to Bass, the research also provides a framework for neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists studying social behavior in a variety of species, and, "sends a message to scientists and non-scientists about the importance of this group of animals to understanding behavior; to understanding the nervous system; and to understanding just how important social communication is--among them, as it is among ourselves."

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Lisa-Joy Zgorski, NSF, (703) 292-8311, lisajoy@nsf.gov
Blaine Friedlander, Cornell University, 607-254-8093, bpf2@cornell.edu

Principal Investigators
Andrew Bass, Cornell University, ahb3@cornell.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2017, its budget is $7.5 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 48,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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