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Contact: Diana Kenney, (508) 289-7139, dkenney@mbl.edu

When Fish Talk, Scientists Listen
MBL Visiting Investigators Explore the Evolution of Social Communication

MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—A male midshipman, a close relative of the toadfish, doesn’t need good looks to attract a mate – just a nice voice. After building a nest for his potential partner, he calls to nearby females by contracting his swim bladder, the air-filled sac fish use to maintain buoyancy. The sound he makes is not a song or a whistle, but a hum; more reminiscent of a long-winded foghorn than a ballad. Female midshipman find it very alluring, and they only approach a male’s nest if he makes this call... More>>>


Bass, A.H., E.H. Gilland, and R. Baker. 2008. Evolutionary Origins for Social Vocalization in a Vertebrate Hindbrain-Spinal Compartment. Science 321: 417-421

Audio Files
The hum is the advertisement call that males use to attract females to their nest. The growl and grunt are aggressive calls that males produce when defending their nest against intruders. Audio credit: Margaret Marchaterre, Cornell University

Toadfish vocalizations: (.wav format)
Growl |
Grunt | Hum

Photos: Click on thumbnails for high-resolution photos. Photo credit: Margaret Marchaterre, Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University.

Midshipman fish shown inside their nest in the rocky intertidal zone of northern California. There are newly fertilized eggs and larvae on the "roof" of the nest.

Closeup of the head of a type I male midshipman fish. The many pore-like structures (neuromasts) are part of their lateral line system, while the smaller pearl-like buttons are bioluminescent photophores.

Closeup of the head of a male Gulf toadfish, Opsanus beta. Toadfish are close relatives of midshipman (same family of teleost fish) that also vocalizes to attract females to his nest (there is no evidence of two male morphs in this species). Gulf toadfish build their nests in shallow waters along the southeastern and Gulf coasts of the United States.

Late stage midshipman larvae (about 30 days old and 20 mm length) attached to a rocky substrate.