This scientific column is for the herring impaired

November 30, 2003|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight Ridder / Tribune

A question that we have all asked ourselves hundreds of times is: How do herring communicate?

I'm pleased to report that we may, at last, be getting closer to an answer, thanks to an important recent discovery by fish scientists. This discovery involves a bodily function that some readers may find distasteful to read about (even though I bet they do it) so before I tell you what it is, here is a:

WARNING to people who are offended by the phrase break wind -- The following paragraphs contain the phrase break wind. So if you don't want to see the phrase break wind, go read a classier part of the newspaper, such as the bridge column. Although if you think bridge players don't break wind, you are clearly not aware of the origin of the word trump.

OK, now that we've gotten rid of Attorney General Ashcroft, let's get to the amazing recent discovery that has fish scientists in such an uproar, which can be summarized in three words:

Herring break wind.

I swear I am not making this up. Many alert readers have sent me an article from the news service, which begins with the following paragraph (I have omitted one naughty word that we cannot put in the newspaper):

"Biologists have linked a mysterious, underwater [naughty word that rhymes with 'smarting'] sound to bubbles coming out of a herring's anus. No fish had been known to emit sound from its anus nor to be capable of producing such a high-pitched noise."

If you go on the New-Scientist site (http: / / www.newscientist. com / news / news.jsp?idns99994343) you can actually hear a recording of herring making this mysterious noise. Isn't modern technology amazing? A hundred years ago, if you had told people that someday there would be a giant network of incredibly sophisticated "thinking machines" that would allow virtually anybody, virtually anywhere on Earth, to hear a herring cut the cheese, they would have beaten you to death with sticks. And they would have been right.

Anyway, the herring on the Internet makes a high-pitched raspberry noise, which turns into a series of rapid ticks. The herring research team has named this sound (I am still not making any of this up) a Fast Repetitive Tick, or FRT.

The critical question now facing the scientific community is: WHY do herring break wind? Scientists quoted in the article speculate that the herring might be using these sounds -- which they make mainly at night -- to communicate with each other.

This raises another question: What, exactly, would a herring need to communicate? I mean, we're talking about creatures with roughly the same IQ as a Tic-Tac. They are not down there discussing Marcel Proust. My guess they're probably breaking wind to convey extremely simple messages such as: "Hey, it's dark!" "I know! The same thing happened last night!" "Who said that?" "Me!" "Who are you?" "A herring!" "Wow, that's amazing! I'm also a herring!" "Wow! I'm also a Yankees fan!" "Wow, that's amazing! "I'm a Yankees fan" ... etc.

I contacted one of the herring researchers, Dr. Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. When I reached him, he was on a ship off the coast of Alaska, doing research on sea lions. He is a thoughtful man with a British accent, and he sounded quite serious about the herring research. Have you ever been in one of those situations where you think the topic is pretty funny, but the other person does not seem to be nearly as amused as you? That was what it was like for me, talking to Dr. Wilson about why herring break wind.

I asked him if, by any chance, the wind-breaking herring happened to be males. Because if they were, that might explain it: It is a well-known scientific fact that human males deliberately break wind purely for the sense of accomplishment it gives them.

But Dr. Wilson said he was unaware of any correlation between the sex of the herring and the FRT noise. He also noted that it's difficult to tell male and female herring apart. Maybe that's what they're communicating about: "Hey, you want to mate?" "Sure! My name is Bob!" "Hey, my name is Bob, too!" "UH-oh!" ... etc.

But whatever the herring are up to, I am confident that, in time, Dr. Wilson and his colleagues will get to the bottom (Har!) of it. On behalf of humanity, I thank them, as well as any editors who actually published this column.

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