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Video Shows Tool Use By A Fish; 'It Requires A Lot Of Forward Thinking'

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SANTA CRUZ, California -- The first video of tool use by a fish has been published in the journal Coral Reefs by Giacomo Bernardi, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In the video, an orange-dotted tuskfish digs a clam out of the sand, carries it over to a rock, and repeatedly throws the clam against the rock to crush it. Bernardi shot the video in Palau in 2009.

"What the movie shows is very interesting. The animal excavates sand to get the shell out, then swims for a long time to find an appropriate area where it can crack the shell," Bernardi said. "It requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved. For a fish, it's a pretty big deal."

The actions recorded in the video are remarkably similar to previous reports of tool use by fish. Every case has involved a species of wrasse using a rock as an anvil to crush shellfish. A report published in June in Coral Reefs included photos of this behavior in a blackspot tuskfish on Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Bernardi said he first heard of the phenomenon in 1994, when a colleague (James Coyer) observed a yellowhead wrasse in Florida doing the same thing. Similar behavior was also reported in a sixbar wrasse in an aquarium setting.

"Wrasses are very inquisitive animals," Bernardi said. "They are all carnivorous, and they are very sensitive to smell and vision."

Wrasses are one of the largest and most diverse families of marine fishes. Bernardi noted that several of the species observed using tools are not closely related, but cover a broad range of evolutionary history within the wrasse family. "They are at opposite ends of the phylogenetic tree, so this may be a deep-seated behavioral trait in all wrasses," he said.

Tool use was once considered an exclusively human trait, and Jane Goodall's reports of tool use in chimpanzees in the 1960s came as a stunning revelation. Since then, many other animals have been observed using tools, including various primates, several kinds of birds, dolphins, elephants, and other animals.

Bernardi, who studies fish genetics, said there may be other examples of tool use in fish that have not yet been observed. "We don't spend that much time underwater observing fishes," he said. "It may be that all wrasses do this. It happens really quickly, so it would be easy to miss."

YouTube video of the wrasse using a tool.

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Reader Comments

3 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

I intensively studied many tropical coral reef wrasse species ethology both in the wild and in aquarium settings for 30 years and did not observe this particular behavior, altho' I did notice them many times using aquarium rockscape to abrade food masses too large to swallow into smaller, more manageable pieces. But the general intelligence, awareness, adaptivity, sensitivity, and speed demonstrated by wrasses lead me to believe it's probably a common occurrance. Labrids have long impressed me as perhaps the most intelligent of the fish groups. Question is: is the shellfish bashing innate or learned behavior? - Dan Hammond at
   comment# 1   - Dan Hammond · Dayton, Ohio USA · Sep 29, 2011 @ 8:23am

No shocker here.... I have a tank full of wrasses, and if i throw in a can of clams and some butter they build a fire and fry em up...
   comment# 2   - stan gowen · fresno, ca · Sep 29, 2011 @ 10:33am

We are sooo arrogant! We think we are the only ones who have the brains or the instincts to think creatively. I am definitely not a scientist. But I do have a brain and some common sense. We ignore the possibility that the "lower" creatures have any ability and we are sooo surprised that they show certain activities planned and helpful to their existence. Shame on us. We need to recognize and accept the various skill and knowledge that many others (non-human) in this world have. Necessity is the mother of invention for all species. Again I say "Arrogance".
   comment# 3   - Ellen Bilman · L.A. CA. · Sep 29, 2011 @ 1:11pm
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