Hum Along With Male Plainfin Midshipman Fish

It's time for another installment in our occasional series Wild Sounds — short stories that take you to remote parts of the world to hear the sounds of rare animals. Biologist Andy Bass of Cornell University explains what makes the plainfin midshipman fish hum.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So that's the sound of prosperity. And next, we will hear a sound from nature. Our series Wild Sounds puts a microphone to the animal kingdom. Biologist Andy Bass of Cornell University has been listening to the midshipman fish.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. ANDY BASS (Biologist, Cornell University): It's from the plainfin midshipman fish. They have an air-filled bladder known as a swim bladder that most fishes use to change their position in the water column, but many fish have secondarily adapted this organ for sound production.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. BASS: Individual males build a territory, if you will, under a rock shelter. And from that rocky shelter, they produce that hum advertisement call to attract females to their nest.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. BASS: We put a hydrophone out by a nest, and then at night, which is when they start becoming very vocal, we can record all of those sounds.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. BASS: Now the other sound you heard coming in in the background is the hum from a neighboring male.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. BASS: The other guy is humming at the same time, competing, perhaps, with that other male, trying to attract a female to his nest.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming and grunting)

Dr. BASS: The grunt is the simplest signal that they produce. It's very brief in duration. It appears to depend on whether or not another male actually gets inside of a nest of a male.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish grunting)

Dr. BASS: What we've discovered is the same regions of the brain that a fish uses to produce sound - in fact, I can show you those same regions in the brain of a human or a bird or a frog.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

Dr. BASS: We were out recording these sounds at the study site up in Washington state. And then sure enough, right about 9:00 at night, suddenly, the water becomes alive with sound. And it goes on for hours. And it's just incredible to listen to. We're sitting there with earphones clipped to our heads listening to these fish all night making these growls and hums and grunts.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

INSKEEP: Thanks to NPR's Christopher Joyce for tracking down our wild sounds, including the midshipman fish, which are part of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology collection. You can find out more about the fish at npr.org.

(Soundbite of plainfin midshipman fish humming)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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