Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Smell of Fear

Several animals, many of them insects, crustaceans and fish, can smell when their fellow peers are scared. A kind of superpower for superwimps, this is an especially useful ability for prey species. An animal that can smell that its neighbor is scared is more likely to be able to avoid predators it hasn’t detected yet.

Who can smell when you're scared? Photo provided by
“What does fear smell like?” you ask. Pee, of course.

I mean, that has to be the answer, right? It only makes sense that the smell of someone who has had the piss scared out of them is, well… piss. But do animals use that as a cue that a predator may be lurking?

Canadian researchers Grant Brown, Christopher Jackson, Patrick Malka, Élisa Jaques, and Marc-Andre Couturier at Concordia University set out to test whether prey fish species use urea, a component of fish pee, as a warning signal.

A convict cichlid in wide-eyed
terror... Okay, fine. They're
always wide-eyed. Photo by
Dean Pemberton at Wikimedia.

First, the researchers tested the responses of convict cichlids and rainbow trout, two freshwater prey fish species, to water from tanks of fish that had been spooked by a fake predator model and to water from tanks of fish that were calm and relaxed. They found that when these fish were exposed to water from spooked fish, they behaved as if they were spooked too (they stopped feeding and moving). But when they were exposed to water from relaxed fish, they fed and moved around normally. Something in the water that the spooked fish were in was making the new fish act scared!

To find out if the fish may be responding to urea, they put one of three different concentrations of urea or just plain water into the tanks of cichlids and trout. The cichlids responded to all three doses of urea, but not the plain water, with a fear response (they stopped feeding and moving again). The trout acted fearfully when the two highest doses of urea, but not the lowest urea dose or plain water, were put in their tank. Urea seems to send a smelly signal to these prey fish to “Sit tight – Something scary this way comes”. And the more urea in the water, the scarier!

But wait a minute: Does this mean that every time a fish takes a wiz, all his buddies run and hide? That would be ridiculous. Not only do freshwater fish pee a LOT, many are also regularly releasing urea through their gills (I know, gross, right? But not nearly as gross as the fact that many cigarette companies add urea to cigarettes to add flavor).

The researchers figured that background levels of urea in the water are inevitable and should reduce fishes fear responses to urea. They put cichlids and trout in tanks with water that either had a low level of urea, a high level of urea, or no urea at all. Then they waited 30 minutes, which was enough time for the fish to calm down, move around and eat normally. Then they added an additional pulse of water, a medium dose of urea, or a high dose of urea. Generally, the more urea the fish were exposed to for the 30 minute period, the less responsive they were to the pulse of urea. Just like the scientists predicted.

A rainbow trout smells its surroundings.
Photo at Wikimedia taken by Ken Hammond at the USDA.
But we still don’t know exactly what this means. Maybe the initial dose of urea makes the fish hide at first, but later realize that there was no predator and decide to eat. Then the second pulse of urea may be seen by the fish as “crying wolf”. Alternatively, maybe the presence of urea already in the water masks the fishes’ ability to detect the second urea pulse. Or maybe both explanations are true.

Urea, which is only a small component of freshwater fish urine, is not the whole story. Urea and possibly stress hormones make up what scientists refer to as disturbance cues. Steroid hormones that are involved in stress and sexual behaviors play a role in sending smelly signals in a number of species, so it makes sense that stress hormones may be part of this fearful fish smell. But fish also rely on damage-released alarm cues and the odor of their predators to know that a predator may be near. Scientists are just starting to get a whiff of what makes up the smell of fear.

Want to know more? Check these out:

1. Brown, G.E., Jackson, C.D., Malka, P.H., Jacques, É., & Couturier, M-A. (2012). Disturbance cues in freshwater prey fishes: Does urea function as an ‘early warning cue’ in juvenile convict cichlids and rainbow trout? Current Zoology, 58 (2), 250-259

2. Chivers, D.P., Brown, G.E. & Ferrari, M.C.O. (2012). Evolution of fish alarm substances. In: Chemical Ecology in Aquatic Systems. C. Brömark and L.-A. Hansson (eds). pp 127-139. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

3. Brown, G.E., Ferrari, M.C.O. & Chivers, D.P. (2011). Learning about danger: chemical alarm cues and threat-sensitive assessment of predation risk by fishes. In: Fish Cognition and Behaviour, 2nd ed. C. Brown, K.N. Laland and J. Krause (eds). pp. 59-80, Blackwell, London. 3.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if the fish are preprogrammed at birth or a conditioned response. Did it learn from memory of an earlier incident and is then classically conditioned to know to flee once they sense the urea because of impending danger, or do they remember what causes them to instinctively pee themselves and automatically become skiddish. It seems their sensory memory turned into working and then encoded into their long term memory. The urea is definatlely a retrieval cue that they use.