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The sensory basis of fish schools: Relative roles of lateral line and vision


Quantitative analyses of the effects of temporary blindfolding (BL) or lateralis section (LS) on the schooling performance of saithe (Pollachius virens) are reported. Comparison of effects of the sensory deprivations on school structure and dynamics allow determination of the relative roles of the lateral lines and vision in normal schooling. Extended 3-dimensional records were made of the positions of sensorily deprived individuals in normal schools as well as whole schools with sensory treatments.

  1. 1.

    Blinding had little effect on the position experimental fish took up with respect to their neighbors within the school (Fig. 2). In contrast, lateralis section resulted in a great increase in the frequency of neighbors at 90° bearing (directly alongside) (Fig. 2).

  2. 2.

    Both BL and LS fish exhibited different characteristic nearest neighbor distances (NNDs) than controls, with blinding increasing NND and lateralis section decreasing NND (Fig. 4).

  3. 3.

    Importance of the lateral line in transmission of a fright response and sudden velocity changes within a school is demonstrated by experiments in which schools were intentionally startled. In schools of LS fish there exist significant relationships between latency to startle and the distance and angle between a fish and the startling object. Such relationships are not seen in normal schools: with intact lateral lines, fish respond with similar latencies to objects in all directions (Fig. 5).

  4. 4.

    Fish which are blindfolded are able nonetheless to match short-term changes in velocity of their neighbors and actually show higher correlations than do controls (Fig. 8 b). Lateralis section does not reduce correlations between fish and neighbors (Fig. 8 d) probably because LS fish take up positions at which they can best determine neighbors' velocities by vision alone.

We conclude that the role of the lateral line in schooling is much greater than has been recognised previously. Our experiments suggest that characteristic NND in a travelling school is maintained by opposing forces of attraction and repulsion mediated by stimuli perceived by the visual and lateralis systems respectively. School structure and dynamics depend upon both senses, with vision primarily important for the maintenance of position and angle between fish and the lateral lines primarily important for monitoring the swimming speed and direction of travel of neighbors.

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LS :

lateralis section

BL :

temporary blindfolding


nearest neighbor distance

NN1, NN2, NN3 :

nearest neighbor, second nearest neighbor and so on


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The work described in this paper formed part of a thesis submitted to the University of Oxford by BLP

We are indebted to Richard Dawkins, Mike Cullen and Tony Cook for many helpful discussions and ideas. We thank Jill Skelton for assistance with the plotting and are grateful to Clem Wardle, sory systems. Instead, they matched their velocities John Wilson, Bob Batty and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, for help with the experiments and for providing facilities. The Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford kindly provided computing facilities. We thank Walter Heiligenberg and Ron Thresher for commenting on the manuscript. Support for this work was provided by the Royal Society (Browne Foundation), the New University of Ulster Research Fund and postgraduate fellowships to BLP from the National Science Foundation (USA) and the National Research Council of Canada.

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Partridge, B.L., Pitcher, T.J. The sensory basis of fish schools: Relative roles of lateral line and vision. J. Comp. Physiol. 135, 315–325 (1980). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00657647

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  • Lateral Line
  • Schooling Performance
  • Swimming Speed
  • Relative Role
  • Neighbor Distance