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Fish That Make Sounds—Purrs, Grunts, Hums and Hoots

Updated on June 09, 2016
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Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honours degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

Seahorses can make clicking sounds.
Seahorses can make clicking sounds. | Source

The world below the ocean surface is often a noisy place, researchers say. At least one thousand types of fish – and probably many more - produce sounds. These vocalizations can take a wide variety of forms, including pops, clicks, whistles, purrs, grunts, groans, growls, barks, hums, hoots, rattles and even tinkles.

Fish produce sounds to attract mates, warn of danger, scare competitors and predators and maintain social cohesion. Some also create sound as a distress call. Although people have known for a long time that certain fish can vocalize, scientists have only recently realized how widespread this ability is.

Researchers record fish vocalizations with the aid of an underwater microphone called a hydrophone. This may be lowered into the water from a boat or carried by a scuba diver. Until recently, divers were unaware of the wide variety of fish sounds in the ocean because the sound of bubbles being released from scuba equipment masked the sounds produced by the fish. In addition, the bubbles often disturbed fish and caused them to swim away.

Fish sound researchers are now using rebreathers instead of conventional scuba gear. A rebreather is a self-contained system in which the diver repeatedly breathes in his or her exhaled air, so no gas bubbles enter the water. Carbon dioxide is removed from the exhaled air inside the rebreather. An oxygen sensor monitors the level of oxygen in the rebreathed air and a microprocessor controls the delivery of fresh oxygen into the air when it’s needed.

The Swim Bladder - The Key to Many Fish Sounds

Inside the abdominal cavity of most types of fish is a gas-filled sac called a swim bladder (the blue organ in the diagram below). The fish uses the swim bladder to control its buoyancy. When gas is added to the swim bladder the fish is more buoyant and can swim higher in the water. When gas is removed from the swim bladder the fish sinks in the water.

The swim bladder is filled in one of two ways. Some fish gulp air from the water surface. The air then passes through a duct connecting the esophagus to the swim bladder. The esophagus is the passageway that connects the mouth to the stomach. Other fish have a gas gland, which extracts gas from the blood and sends it into the swim bladder.

The swim bladder of a rudd, a freshwater fish
The swim bladder of a rudd, a freshwater fish | Source

Internal Anatomy of a Fish

1-liver, 2-stomach, 3-intestine, 4-heart, 5-swim bladder 6- kidney 7-reproductive organ 8- ureter 9-efferent duct 10-urinary bladder 11-gills
1-liver, 2-stomach, 3-intestine, 4-heart, 5-swim bladder 6- kidney 7-reproductive organ 8- ureter 9-efferent duct 10-urinary bladder 11-gills | Source
The oyster toadfish produces sound by the action of its sonic muscle on its swim bladder.
The oyster toadfish produces sound by the action of its sonic muscle on its swim bladder. | Source

How Do Fish Produce Sounds?

In some fish the swim bladder is used as a sound-producing organ. A muscle attached to the swim bladder, called the sonic muscle, contracts and relaxes in a rapid sequence, causing the swim bladder to vibrate and produce a low-pitched drumming sound. The sonic muscle of the oyster toadfish is able to contract at a rate of 200 times a second!

Another way in which fish may produce sounds is by stridulation, a process in which hard body parts like teeth or bones hit each other. Body movements that create water currents or splashes are also used to create sounds for communication.

The Bocon toadfish is in the same family as the three-spined toadfish. Toadfish are known for their ability to produce sounds.
The Bocon toadfish is in the same family as the three-spined toadfish. Toadfish are known for their ability to produce sounds. | Source

A Toadfish Sings in Honduras

Toadfish have a wide face that is reminiscent of a toad's and eyes that are located towards the top of the head instead of on the side as in most fish. They usually live on the ocean bottom, where they are ambush predators. They are generally colored and patterned to help them blend in with their background. Male toadfish are known for their habit of producing sounds to attract females.

The three-spined toadfish, or Batrachomoeus trispinosus, lives in the western region of the Pacific Ocean. It's the only fish so far known to produce non-linear sounds.

Normal sound is said to be linear. Non-linear sounds are more complex. Their sound waves cause unusual effects in the materials that they travel through. Non-linear sounds can produce intense sensations in humans and (apparently) in animals, too.

Crying babies and animals such as marmots and songbirds emit non-linear sounds as alarm calls and to communicate distress. Film makers use music with non-linear sounds in movies to evoke emotions like fear and tension in viewers.

Three-spined toadfish have a swim bladder that is divided into two sections, forming two functionally separate areas. Each half of the swim bladder is controlled by its own sonic muscle and can produce its own sound. When each section of the swim bladder emits a different sound at the same time the sound is said to be biphonic. Scientists are trying to discover what role the non-linear sounds play in the three-spined toadfish community.

The plainfin midshipman is another kind of toadfish and is a vocal animal.
The plainfin midshipman is another kind of toadfish and is a vocal animal. | Source

Some Plainfin Midshipman Vocalizations

The midshipman is another type of toadfish and has the scientific name Porichthys notatus. The fish is notable for the bioluminescent spots on its surface, the sounds that it produces and the fact that it can breathe in air. Interestingly, not all plainfin midshipman are bioluminescent.

Plainfin midshipman are found off the west coast of North America from Alaska to Baja California. In California they are sometimes called “California singing fish”.

During the mating season the male midshipman hums – sometimes for long periods - by hitting his swim bladder with his sonic muscle. His humming is designed to attract a female. Once she deposits her eggs, the midshipman resumes humming to attract another female to his nest. The male guards the eggs until they hatch.

Researchers have discovered that there are two types of midshipman males – Type 1 and Type 2. Type 2 males are sometimes called “sneaker males”. They are smaller than Type 1 males and do not hum, although they can make other vocalizations. Instead, they try to sneak into the nest and quickly fertilize the eggs before the Type I males notice what they are doing.

The Plainfin Midshipman Fish

Black Drum Sounds

The black drum (Pogonias cromis) is a black or grey fish that lives in the brackish water found in areas such as estuaries. Black drums are mainly bottom feeders. The young fish have black stripes on a light background, but the stripes fade as the fish matures. Adults can become very big and may weigh over a hundred pounds.

Black drums become very noisy during the mating season. The low pitched sounds that they produce travel long distances. The males produce the sounds to attract females.

In 2005, residents in Cape Coral on the Florida Gulf Coast complained that they were being kept awake at night by low-pitched throbbing sounds in their homes, which they believed were being created by an engineering fault in the buildings. It was eventually discovered that the sounds were being created by black drum fish, which at first the residents found hard to believe. The fish had swum into the canals and estuaries in the area. Their mating calls were penetrating the ground and the seawalls and entering nearby houses.

A juvenile black drum; the stripes disappear in the adult
A juvenile black drum; the stripes disappear in the adult | Source
An Atlantic Herring
An Atlantic Herring | Source

Herring and Their Interesting Method of Sound Production

Herring communicate with each other by forcibly expelling gas from the anal area, producing bubbles and a high-pitched sound. The researchers call this sound production an FRT (Fast Repetitive Tick). They did have another word in mind when they created the term, however!

Both the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and the Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) produce FRT's. The fish gulp air from the water surface and then store it in the swim bladder. During the night, in darkness and when surrounded by other herring, air is released through the anal duct. The gas that is emitted isn't made from the digestion of food, since captive herring produce the sounds whether or not they have been fed.

Herring have a good sense of hearing. The purpose of the FRT sounds may be to ensure that the fish stay close together.

Listening to Fish Sounds

The “Discovery of Sound in the Sea” or DOSITS website was created by the University of Rhode Island. It contains a collection of audio files which play the sounds created by fish (including the black drum) and whales.

Talking Catfish

Other Fish Sounds

Both ocean and freshwater fish produce sounds. Seahorses produce clicking sounds by rubbing two parts of their skull together. The weakfish - a type of drum - produces a purr with its sonic muscle and swim bladder. Squeaker catfish rub the spines located in their pectoral fins into grooves on their shoulders. Talking catfish can produce sound in two ways - by vibrating their swim bladder or by vibrating their pectoral fin spines in their sockets.

Research of sound production in fish is still in its infancy. As scientists continue their investigations they are likely to find even more fish species that make sound and even more methods of fish vocalizations.

© 2011 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 24 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, nissantwa. It's interesting to hear about your personal experience with drum fish!

    • nissantwa 24 months ago

      Thanks. We live on a canal and the drum fish noises reverberate through the house at night. Seasonal but annoying.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, ArtByLinda. It is fun - and very interesting - to learn about the sounds that fish make! Thank you very much for the comment.

    • ArtByLinda profile image

      Linda Hoxie 2 years ago from Idaho

      I have often as a child imagined the goldfish talking. As an adult I have heard the sound of the catfish grinding his teeth together, angry that he has been caught. I had no clue so many fish talked. Great information and fun to learn!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, PADDYBOY60!

    • PADDYBOY60 profile image

      PADDYBOY60 3 years ago from Centreville Michigan

      Very interesting read. I used to love to catch Croakers just to hear them croak. :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, CMHypno.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Fascinating hub Alicia. It never even occurred to me before that fish made noises, so thanks for all the great information.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Movie Master. It's nice to meet you! Thank you for your comment.

    • Movie Master profile image

      Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi AliciaC what an unusual topic! a fasinating read and well explained, thank you

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, GetSmart. Thank you very much for the visit and your comment.

    • GetSmart profile image

      GetSmart 5 years ago

      Really great hub! I remember hearing about the black drum situation in Cape Coral. It got a lot of news coverage down here in Florida. Fascinating information. Thanks!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the rating, Om Paramapoonya!

    • Om Paramapoonya profile image

      Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

      What a refreshing topic! This hub has really changed my perspective about fish. Rated awesome. :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, b. Malin! I'm hoping that researchers soon learn more about fish sounds and what they are used for.

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 5 years ago

      How very both interesting and fascinating...so fish can Talk, and now we can hear that sound...Wow, what next...Thanks Alicia, you always come up with Wonderful Hubs.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks a lot, Chatkath. Yes, there is so much that we still need to discover about life in the ocean. It’s a very interesting topic!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Tina. I find it interesting that two types of midshipman males have developed too!

    • Chatkath profile image

      Kathy 5 years ago from California

      You always write the most interesting hubs, this is no exception! I saw a show on this not too long ago, scientists were taping some of these sounds, but I didn't understand how they were able to make this noise until you did such a super job of explaining it! Thank you gor sharing, Rated up! So much in the ocean to still learn about.

    • thougtforce profile image

      Christina Lornemark 5 years ago from Sweden

      Amazing and informative article about life in the ocean! There is so much we don’t know about that hidden area of the globe. Interesting about the midshipman males and I wonder who will be most successful in the long run, type 1 or type 2?

      Thanks for this fantastic hub Alicia! Voted up!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the information, A.A. Zavala.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, ethel!

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

      We catch croakers on the coast, and the grunt and croak as you take them off the hook. Interesting.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Eileen Kersey 5 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      This is an unusual hub. Excellent in fact

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, RTalloni. Thanks for the visit. Yes, we do have much to learn, but it's going to be a very interesting process!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 5 years ago from the short journey

      Neat hub! Discoveries like this tell us that we have much yet to learn. Thanks for the undersea investigation. I love being in the ocean!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the vote, tillsontitan. I find it very interesting that fish have more abilities than scientists once thought!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 5 years ago from New York

      How interesting. Here I thought fish were the only "animals" that didn't make sounds! Well done! Voted up.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, drbj. Thank you very much for your comment! I'm looking forward to more discoveries by the scientists who are researching fish vocalizations.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, breakfastpop.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Absolutely, positively fascinating, Alicia. Thank you for enhancing my scanty fish-vocalizing knowledge.

    • breakfastpop profile image

      breakfastpop 5 years ago

      Simply fascinating. I never would have realized that fish can vocalize of not for this hub.

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