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Lost at sea

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Science  21 Jun 2019:
Vol. 364, Issue 6446, pp. 1124-1127
DOI: 10.1126/science.364.6446.1124

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Summary

When many people think of threats to the world's fish, overfishing or vanishing reefs might leap to mind. Many scientists, however, are increasingly interested in a subtler danger: how human activities might interfere with the senses fish use to perceive the world. Noise from ships and construction, murkier waters caused by pollution, and rising ocean acidification from the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide are all possible culprits. In laboratories and in the wild, scientists study exactly how those factors might affect a fish's ability to communicate, navigate, and survive. The studies face both logistical and conceptual challenges. Observing the behavior of fish in the vast sea is nearly impossible, but a laboratory aquarium is a far cry from their natural environment. And we can't know exactly what seeing, smelling, or hearing as a fish is like. But by drawing on tools as elaborate as simulated underwater environments and as simple as bits of thread tethering baby fish to stream bottoms, researchers are gaining a better understanding of how fish use their senses—as well as the consequences of disrupting them. The stakes are high. "The knock-on implications are huge," says Jennifer Kelley, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth. When fish with compromised senses settle in the wrong homes or fail to recognize predators, the results could ripple outward "to how individuals interact and how communities operate, and the whole ecology of the system altering."