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Rights: University of Waikato
Published 10 May 2011

Prof John Montgomery introduces a range of senses fish use that don’t involve seeing. He discusses electromagnetic fields and hearing in particular.


As humans, we’re quintessentially vision. You are watching video material now, and one of the things that has always fascinated me is that vision is just one of a whole suite of senses in the animal kingdom, and in many other environments, vision is much less important.

So non-visual sensory systems include hearing, but in the marine environment also include really interesting things like the electrosensory system that sharks have. Sharks can detect weak electric fields, and they use that in their hunting.

I personally study non-visual sensory systems because I’m interested in how animals interact with their world, and there has been so much work done on visual sensory systems that, in many respects, non-visual sensory systems has been a kind of wide open field. So studying non-visual sensory systems has taken me to look at animals in really interesting environments like the Antarctic where you spend 6 months in the dark. So how do fish in particular survive the Antarctic winter? Are they feeding? If they are feeding, how are they feeding?

There are some other reasons for studying non-visual sensory systems as well, and part of them relate to our own senses. The non-visual sensory systems that fish have are based on little receptors called hair cells, which are the same receptors that we have in our ears and in our balance organs that give us a sense of balance, and some of the work that we have done with fish actually provides a kind of understanding of the evolution of those systems and even provides opportunities for doing drug testing and how we can protect hair cells against noise damage, how you can regenerate and recover hair cells.

So there’s just a huge range of reasons of why you’d study non-visual sensory systems, from the medical through to a kind of ecosystems level question.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Sound as an orientation cue for the pelagic larvae of reef fishes and decapod crustaceans, Montgomery JC, Jeffs A, Simpson SD, Meekan M, Tindle C. Advanced Marine Biology 2006;51:143-96.