cichlid fish injected with violet dye

Dario Bayani

Fish communicate through their urine

Some of the signals animals use to communicate are obvious. Birds sing. Lions roar. But there’s a whole category of signals in the natural world that humans rarely notice. Researchers have found that one species of cichlid uses urine to send chemical signals to rivals during aggressive displays. The team separated large fish from small fish with a transparent divider. Half the dividers contained holes to allow water to flow back and forth. The scientists then injected the fish with a violet dye (pictured), turning their urine bright blue. When the animals saw each other, they raised their fins and rushed toward the divider. They also changed the way they peed. Fish separated by a solid barrier couldn’t detect their opponent’s urine. In an attempt to get their message across, they urinated even more. Without the chemical cues provided by the urine, smaller fish often tried to attack their larger opponents, the team reports this month in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. Humans could be missing other signals as well, the researchers contend. In addition to chemical signals, animals use seismic vibrations, electricity, and ultraviolet light to communicate. Visual signals might be more obvious, but this research stresses the importance of looking for less noticeable forms of communication, the authors say.