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Human Noise Disturbs Different Fish in Different Ways

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is well known that animals are affected by human noise pollution. For example, dark-eyed junco birds that live in cities sing both louder and with a different song than their countryside counterparts. However, human noise pollution is not contained to cities, and even our oceans are filled with the noise from ships, motorboats and jet skis.

Most research into human noise pollution has looked at how animals deal with communicating when there’s more noise than what they’re used to. However, noise can disrupt more than just an animal’s ability to communicate. Have you ever been in a bar, and had trouble enjoying your food, just because the music was too obnoxious? Or, if you happen to like pounding beats with your pizza, what about when you’re in a restaurant and an electric piano version of a Celine Dion song comes on and it makes you feel so physically sick that it’s hard to digest your soup.

While these aren’t exactly the kind of problems that other animals face, having human-made noise might impair animals’ ability to find food by stressing it out, making it less hungry, or more directly through interfering with the animal’s ability to detect its food.

The three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus

A recent study compared the effects of human noise on two fishes: three-spined sticklebacks and European minnows. The researchers played a recording of ships to the fish while they were foraging to see how their behaviour differed from when they foraged with a playback of silence. When being played the sound of ships, both species of fish ate less of their food (the waterflea, Daphnia) and were startled more often than when they had quiet. However, it seems that the noise disrupted the behaviour of the sticklebacks and minnows in different ways.

The European Minnow Phoxinus phoxinus

When the sticklebacks were played the ship noise, they made more errors while they were foraging, whereas the minnows were just less motivated overall to feed.

If a fish has this kind of disruption to its feeding it can mean that it then eats more when it is quiet, or spends more time foraging overall. This can in turn increase its chances of being eaten by a predator, if it is forced to search for food during the time or in the areas that predators hunt.

The waterflea, Daphnia, a very peculiar-looking invertebrate

In an unexpected twist to this tale, anthropogenic noise (for example of ships), can actually affect the behaviour of the invertebrate prey (like the waterflea prey of these fish) as well as the fish themselves. Such noise can make invertebrates like these waterfleas more alert to danger, and therefore harder to catch by their predators. However, in the current study at least, the sticklebacks seemed to be making more errors to do with attacking non-food items instead of the waterfleas rather than the waterfleas being better at escaping them.

As this experiment was carried out in the lab, it’s not clear how reliably it translates to natural conditions. For example, it is possible that fish that are constantly exposed to anthropogenic noise habituate to it and ‘learn to live with it’. Studies in the future will need to address how wild fish populations deal with the anthropogenic noise they are exposed to, and whether it alters their behaviour in a negative way.


Photo Credits

Stickleback: Jack Wolf

Minnow: Etrusko25

Waterflea: Duncan Hull



Voellmy, I.K., Purser, J., Flynn, D., Kennedy, P., Simpson, S.D. & Radford, A.N. (2014) Acoustic noise reduces foraging success via different mechanisms in two sympatric fish species. Animal Behaviour, 89: 191-198.


Felicity Muth About the Author: Felicity Muth is an early-career researcher with a PhD in animal cognition. Follow on Twitter @notbadscience.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 6:31 am 02/10/2014

    Dr. Muth,
    I wondered at what volume the recordings of shipping noise were played in the laboratory experiments. Since I found no link to the unidentified “recent study”, I searched for terms that might apply (‘study of human noise on two fishes spined sticklebacks and European minnows’). I did find the likely studying being referred to,, but only its abstract is freely available and it does not address my question.
    Perhaps you can help: at what playback volumes were the effects of ship noise recordings determined? Were they representative of a ship passing in the immediate proximity of the fish, at representative distances (100 yards, 1 mile, etc.), or were they played at unrealistic volumes to ensure a reaction? Thanks is advance…

    Link to this
  2. 2. jgrosay 4:59 pm 02/10/2014

    Recently, a massive attack from ‘Palometa’ fishes, also known as ‘Japutas’, a short form of S.O.B., they probably are Pygocentrus natterei, was recorded in a riverside beach in Rosario, Argentina; the finger of a girl went away, and local scientists blame among other possible causes, the noise made by the thousands of people bathing there for the palometas becoming very aggressive.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 11:52 am 02/11/2014

    Funny you should mention this – check out this article Amy Deacon just wrote

    Link to this
  4. 4. Felicity Muth in reply to Felicity Muth 11:40 pm 02/24/2014

    Good question. The authors made their recordings from 7 different cargo ships at 3 different harbours. From the paper: ‘Recordings were made between 23 and 27 March 2010 between 0600 and 1800 hours, while ships were moving at a
    constant speed (up to 10 knots) according to port regulations. Ships varied in size (74-286 m length; 10-40 m breadth), unloaded weight (535-80 455 tonnes) and in their construction years (1975- 2008).. The hydrophone was positioned at a depth of 1 m, 20 m from the shore with ships passing at a distance of 100-200 m at Plymouth and Portsmouth, and 20-40 m from the shore with ships passing at a distance of 200-400 m at Gravesend.’ The authors also ensured that the volume of the recordings played back to the fish did not exceed natural levels.

    FYI, I always include the reference of the study I discuss at the end of my blog post, but unfortunately a lot of peer-reviewed journals still have subscription-access only

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