Singing fish in San Francisco stuns scientists

A fish in the San Francisco Bay has been baffling scientists for years … but a new study may have revealed its secret.

A fish that lives in the San Francisco Bay has been confounding scientists with its singing behavior, and a new paper claims to have explained why it happens. The study focuses on the male version of the Porichthys fish, which produces a “song” in the nighttime hours likened to a chorus of kazoos or a swarm of bees. What has confused scientists is why this fish only starts to sing after dark and why it suddenly stops before the morning comes.

A new study published recently claims that it may have to do with a chemical called melatonin, which we know is what regulates our own internal clocks and causes us to get sleepy at night. In fact, many people take melatonin supplements if they are feeling a bout of insomnia before bed in the hopes of getting sleepy.

But how does this apply to Porchthys? Scientists think that it may be because melatonin isn’t necessarily something that makes you sleepy, but simply regulates nighttime behaviors. For us, melatonin is an indicator to our bodies that it’s time to sleep. For the fish, it’s an indicator that it’s time to look for a mate, according to a Cornell University statement.

It’s a big discovery because scientists had struggled with explaining melatonin’s purpose in animals that aren’t asleep at night.

“Our results, together with those of others that also show melatonin’s actions on vastly different timescales, highlight the ability of hormones in general to regulate the output of neural networks in the brain to control distinct components of behavior,” said Andrew Bass, professor of neurobiology and behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, the paper’s senior author. “In the case of melatonin, one hormone can exert similar or different effects in diurnal vs. nocturnal species depending on the timescale of action, from day-night rhythms to the duration of single calls.”

“Melatonin is an ancient and multifunctional molecule that is found almost ubiquitously in the animal kingdom,” said Ni Feng, Ph.D. ’16, a former graduate student in Bass’ lab who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Yale, the paper’s first author.

“Similarly, circadian rhythms govern the daily lives of diverse lineages, from plants to animals,” Feng said. “Our study helps cement melatonin as a timing signal for social communication behaviors.”

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