I’m Jonathan Balcombe, ethologist and author of What a Fish Knows. I’ve been studying animal behavior and sentience for more than 25 years, with a focus on fish in the last few years. AMA about animals!
Hi, I’m Jonathan Balcombe, ethologist and director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of a number of books, including Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and the newly released New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows. I have three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology from the University of Tennessee, where I studied communication in bats. I’ve been fortunate to be able to share my work studying animals with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, the BBC, the National Geographic Channel, and other outlets like the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
AMA about animals—I look forward to your questions!
Proof: Picture, my website, and Twitter
ps. We attempted a Reddit session 6 months ago but didn't have the proper photo proof. We've covered that this time.
Great question. Sentience, the capacity to feel, is an absolute in the sense that you either have it or not (kinda like pregnancy). In that sense, it's B&W. But that doesn't mean that there aren't gradients. Elephants probably experience emotions that another species does not (and maybe vice versa). Some species may be more resistant to pain than others, especially if they have to take risks to survive (e.g., catching prey). But we should take this to mean that they are any less deserving of our respect or our moral concern.
Why does it have to be black and white? Why can't it be a continuous gradient from what we would easily recognise to something far less, in the same way that vision is continuous from binocular colour vision to phototropism (and divergent forms like echolocation)?
Or for that matter, pregnancy we would recognise versus all the myriad other ways organisms reproduce.
Sorry but I don't know what this is/was in reference to.
Do fish feel pain when caught in a hook by conventional fishing means?
More on fish pain: Studies of terminally anesthetized trouts (another representative bony fish species) found that they have different kinds of nociceptors (pain receptors) for mechanical, chemical, and heat-induced pain. Other trouts injected with acid into their lips (yeah, I'm glad I wasn't one of those subjects!) stopped eating for many hours (much longer than control fishes injected with saline) and some rubbed their lips against the aquarium glass or bottom pebbles.
Several other studies support fish pain. Then there is the fact that fishes are full members of the vertebrate clan, with complex nervous systems, life histories, social engagements, and sometimes Machiavellian strategies for survival. They are highly evolved, fabulously successful group. We've missed the boat with our tired old assumptions of their being dead-eyed and primitive. If you doubt that, watch them closely, read my book, you'll see otherwise.
Speaking of fish hoooks - I was told a long time ago by a biology teacher that many of the fish who have been caught with hooks often die from the resultant infections. is this true?
I discuss this in my book, and indeed there are many studies showing delayed mortality from hook ingestion, and skin infections following rough handling in some fishing contexts.
Boy that's a bummer. I hoped that catch and release was more humane. I assume being as gentle as possible while removing the hook and returning quickly is the best we can do?
It can only help. It also helps to use barbless hooks. There are also devices for returning fishes quickly to deeper waters if they were dragged up from the depths, which happens surprisingly often in recreational fishing (and very commonly in commercial fishing!).
There is, of course, always the option of optimizing the fishes' chances of avoiding harm by avoiding fishing altogether.
I discuss fish pain at some length in my book, because, unfortunately, many people continue to believe that fishes are insensate to pain. Rigorous science shows otherwise. A study of zebrafishes, for example, found that they will pay a cost to get pain relief. Individuals injected with acid ventured over to a normally undesirable (barren and brightly lit) chamber of their tank, but only after painkiller (Lidocaine) was dissolved there. Others injected with saline solution (which should not cause any lasting pain) stayed in the preferred chamber of the tank.
Thank you to all those who participated. I enjoyed your questions. I have to attend to some urgent matters now. Best fishes! Jonathan
In your opinion what is the most effective method in educating others? I feel as a vegan this is where we get it all wrong.
There are as many opinions on this as there are vegans (and that's a lot!). I personally believe that respect for other viewpoints is critical for progress, and that preachiness and accusation are not effective, despite the frustration felt by those who believe fiercely in a certain position. We all have egos and they don't respond well to being beaten up on. That said, we all need to be critical thinkers, look at the evidence, and read the proverbial writing on the wall.
What is your stance on the benefits/pitfalls of anthropomorphizing animals?
Anthropomorphism is ascribing human qualities and abilities to other species. Scientists tend to be skeptical of it as it is not based on rigorous science with repeated samples, control groups, blind observers (oxymoron!), etc. But, as I argue in my books, to the degree that other animals (for we, too, are biologically animals) share common ancestry with us, human-like phenomena we see in animals may actually be parallel in terms of what the animal is thinking and/or feeling. I agree with my colleague, Gordon Burghardt, that we should practice "critical anthropomorphism, which requires knowing the species well before interpreting the true meaning of its behavior.
I have always like ethologist Frans de Waal's quote on this:
To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.
It's a good quote!
I appreciate your work, but I feel it isn’t being heard by many people. It seems only PETA campaigns against fishing, but it’s easy to write them off. Do you think HSUS should take a more aggressive stance against fishing, and will they?
I wrote WAFK because fishes are so maligned by humans, and so neglected by the animal protection movement. But that's changing. Fish Feel has been around for several years now in N.Am., and several groups are forming in Europe to work for fish protection. I hope that WAFK will stimulate greater attention to a group of animals that, the science shows, are far, far more sophisticated and aware than we have believed in the past.
Also, several groups have been turning their attention to fish protection. Mercy for Animals's undercover investigation of live catfish butchering. HSUS's (and other orgs') campaigns to stop shark finning. And let's not forget the courageous efforts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has campaigned at sea for decades to help marine life, including fishes. I interviewed Captain Paul Watson for my book What a Fish Knows, and quote him in the final chapter.
How did you set out to write a book about fish knowing that you can't really interact with them? It must be really different from writing a book about, say, dogs or primates or elephants.
Actually, there are many ways we can and do interact with fishes. One of the coolest involves long-lived fishes who have learned to trust familiar divers and will swim up to them to receive caresses. Groupers, moray eels, and sharks are examples. I especially love these interactions because they involve pleasure. (I have written two books on animal pleasure: Pleasurable Kingdom (2006), and The Exultant Ark (2011)).
I have a question along this line. When I was younger I had a goldfish who loved to be pet. If I stuck my hand in the tank he'd swim over to it and rub up against it. (he was a really very interactive fish and would respond to my voice - I loved that guy)
I've read things since saying that you shouldn't pet fish because it removes their slim coat.
He seemed to love the interaction so much. He lived a good long time (around ten years or so, I can't remember exactly). Is this something I shouldn't do in the future, if I ever get another goldfish. Or is this sort of petting not too risky, as long as my hands are clean and the water quality is good?
Thanks for sharing that. My feeling is that if the animal is the initiator and clearly enjoys it, then it's okay. I one were to notice some deterioration in health of the fish from being petted, then maybe deploy something gentler than the fingers, or desist for a while. But it doesn't follow that I'd recommend getting another fish, especially not a loner. Goldfishes are long-lived (max over 40) and social animals, who need company. And they don't necessarily take to just any old companion fish. Like us, they have preferences and can be choosy.
Hi Jonathan! Thanks for doing this AMA. I'm writing my Master's thesis on animal resistance and animal revenge. Do you think (or know of any significant studies that suggest) that animals can exact revenge on humans? Or do you think certain actions are merely instinctual, and we are misguidly anthropomorphising them?
Neat question. I'm not aware of any science on this. I would think some long-lived, especially social animals might be capable of wanting to avenge past misdeeds by persecuting humans, though they might generalize this to our species rather than to an individual. Elephants, cetaceans (captive orcas), and great apes spring to mind. Might the recently deceased orca Tillicum (of "Black Fish" fame) have been exhibiting revenge when she killed her trainers?
sighs He. Tillukum was a "he".
Noted. Thanks for the correction. (call me a feminist!)
Mr. Balcombe, what are some of the most interesting stories or anecdotes you've learned about fish in your research? They're kind of an unknown animal to most of us (myself included), so curious to hear.
There are so many stories, and I include some of the more touching and credible ones in my new book, What a Fish Knows. These include affectionate friendships between fishes and humans (and other fishes!), fishes helping others, and fishes showing emotions we often don't associate with them, such as curiosity and anger.
Hello Dr. Balcombe!
I have almost zero knowledge about fish so I apologize for rather basic (i.e. stupid) question. I was wondering whether your studies include marine mammals like whales and/or molluscs like octopuses?
I became aware that octopuses are considered exceptionally intelligent when I read an article last year about an octopus that made a glorious escape from the national aquarium in New Zealand. But, then, in the same family, bivalves are not even considered sentient. Have you done research on molluscs? Are bivalves sentient? How intelligent are octopuses?
Favourite marine animal?
Marine mammals and marine inverts like mmolluscs are fascinating animals in their own right, but What a Fish Knows focuses strictly on the fishes, because they are the most exploited by us and the least respected.
There is interesting new research emerging on cephalopod molluscs (octopuses, squids, etc.) and they appear to have evolved consciousness independently of the vertebrate lineage. (Check out the new book "Other Minds" by Peter Godfrey-Smith.)
Bivalve sentience? The jury's out on that one. They are in the same phylum as cephalopods. I hope our new journal Animal Sentience (google it, it's free and open access) will soon have some papers exploring that question.
Favorite marine mammal: spinner dolphin
Hello Mr Ballcombe. Do you think there are good, respectful way to fish/breed fishes for human consumption or would you suggest avoiding eating fish at all?
Well, as a long-time vegan, I always advocate for plant-based eating as the all-around best way to feed ourselves (deliciously, I might add). For those who just won't yet take that step (which the United Nations has called "vital" to addressing climate change), well, I can't exactly recommend any sources of fish as respectful, for how can one ever show respect for another being who wants to live by taking its life away? If one "must" eat fish, do some homework to find the least harmful sources, but know that you are almost always eating wildlife (directly or indirectly since wild-caught fishes are fed to farmed fishes), and that some harm/pain/suffering is inevitably done to procure the product.
So, are you of the belief that human beings shouldn't eat other animals?
Please see my response to Lime.
To elaborate a bit more, there are some humans (e.g., Innuit) who really don't have a choice but to eat animals to survive. For the great majority of the rest of us, we can feed ourselves well on a plant-based foods. A wealth of literature and science shows that doing so offers benefits not just to the animals we stop consuming, but also to the environment, and personal health. Sure, we evolved as omnivores (who ate a lot less meat per capita than we do today), but we are not trapped in that way of life. Unlike the obligate carnivore like the lion or the shark, we have choices.
What do you think are the best steps that those in the animal protection movement can take to improve the lives of fishes?
First and foremost: don't buy/eat them, because it amounts to funding the gruesome, unsustainable practices of commercial fishing and aquaculture operations. Next, don't catch them (for obvious reasons). After that, you can become active in fish advocacy by joining groups (or starting one), and/or speaking out about fishes.
If you're already working in animal protection, then those steps may be moot. I would love to see campaigns aimed at exposing the ills of commercial and recreational fishing, in conjunction with education on the capabilities of fishes.
In a situation where conservation conflicts, or seems to conflict, with ethics, would you choose minimization of suffering or conservation of the species/ecosystem as a whole? Or a compromise?
I would strive to optimize both, but there is a line of suffering I would never cross.
Hi Jonathon, thanks for doing this AMA! My undergrad background is in primate behavior. Just one question here if you don't mind.. Where do you see the field of animal behavior going in the next decade? I know the hot topics are genomics, microbiome, etc. and it seems like it's drifting away from classic behavior.
I will be teaching a course in animal sentience for the Viridis Graduate Institute this fall, and I look forward to discussing some of the exciting new studies and findings emerging these days. Consider that the sounds made by roosting bats have been found to contain specific meaning for context and individuals; that humpback whales actively intervene to rescue stranded seals when they are under attack from orcas, and that fishes use referential signals to communicate across species lines. It's a ZOO out there, I tell you! :-)
This sounds like it would be amazing to take.
Are there any similar classes online that you would recommend, that could be audited?
None that I'm aware of since Humane Society University was terminated in 2015. There are, however, many new courses in HAS (Human Animal Studies). Animals and Society Institute is a good place to find courses out there, and I'm sure some could be audited.
Thank you for the information. I'll check them out!
Edit: Here's a link to the Animals and Society Institute for lazy lurkers.
And thanks for the link!
In general, scholarly attention to animal issues is a very positive development, with many offerings now in animal law, animal rights, history, philosophy, anthropology, etc. There are graduate degree programs, too, not just courses. There was nothing before 1980, now there are hundreds.
I hope you're wrong, FF. I do find a lot of the topics in the table of contents of Animal Behaviour a bit more reductionist and less interesting these days, at least to my sensibilities. But more broadly, there is so much exciting science emerging now on animal's inner lives. Scientists are comfortable asking questions now that they were not so just a generation ago. Old taboos against discussing animal emotions and feelings are melting away. And as we find that animals experience so much more in their rich lives than we had thought when it was considered unscientific to go there, the momentum should increase.
What are your thoughts on the current menhaden management strategy?
I'm not familiar with that particular strategy, but I'm always leery about wildlife "management," as if they can't look after themselves if we'd only just leave them be. I do write about menhaden in What a Fish Knows. They are perhaps the most exploited fish species (four species, actually) in the world. Most people have never heard of these members of the herring family, because we don't eat them directly. They are ground up for fish meal fertilizer and animal feed, and for fish oil. Poor menhaden!
Konoss, please feel free to share what you know about menhaden management.
It's a real hot topic on the east coast right now, especially within the Chesapeake Bay and some progress is being made.
Basically, many people would like them to be managed as a forage fish (which means a lot more fish will be around so that they can support other species). On top of that, 85% of the total catch comes out of Virginia. The issue is that Virginia is also the largest nursery for them.
Many people living on the bay feel like the lack of menhaden (bottom of the food pyramid) has had a devastating affect on the bay in regards to it's Striped Bass population. The lack of menhaden has caused Striped Bass to eat other forage which has a) decimated the grey trout population and b) caused many Striped Bass to die off.
My ideal situation is that they would stop fishing commercially for them but that will never happen.
The committee that manages the Menhaden population just closed a public comment period on Amendment 3 (which involves this issue). Fingers crossed that it works out.
This is probably the best quick explanation I have found: http://www.chesapeakelighttackle.com/2016/12/06/something-we-all-agree-on-a-call-to-action/
Disclaimer: It is from a recreational fishing site. On top of that, I am also a recreational angler and although I see a lot of negativity towards fishing here, I felt that conserving fish is something that everyone here can agree on so this was worth sharing.
The concept of wildlife "management" has never sat well with me. They seem to have managed their lives just fine before we came along.
WHat are your ideas on reptile intelligence? Because it is now known reptiles are as intelligent as most mammals.
Also, have you seen this? Seems like most large fish, sharks and large reptiles (and most large mammals) are actually as smart as, or smarter than, than the smartest cetaceans. A study seems to validate this.
Finally, what are your opinions on "non-human persons"? (I personally disagree with the idea that a species that operates on different ethical and moral standards than our own should have to adhere to our ethics).
Like fishes, reptiles have been underestimated. The closer we look, the more we discover that we thought they weren't capable of. INtelligence is complicated. Cleaner wrasses outperform great apes in some tests of intelligence, but does that mean they are smarter than chimps? What it does mean is that intelligence is expressed in multivariate ways. More important though, I think, is that we have overemphasized intelligence in our view of animals (I call this "intellicentrism"). It is sentience, the capacity to FEEL, that is the bedrock of ethics.
Hello Mr. Balcombe, can you tell us a little bit about fish behaviour? What are the behavioural signs that pet fish are satisfied in their environment?
Glad you asked. The best rule of thumb IMHO is to mimic the natural environment of the species as closely as possible (sans predators, of course). Generally, fishes like stimulating environments with not bright light, lots of places to hide and explore, and others of their own kind (with exceptions!). If you apply my rule of thumb, then very few species of fishes can adequately be kept in a tank. Consider just the depth requirements of fishes...the Royal Blue Tang of "Dory" fame, for instance, lives at around 2 - 50 meters depth, which is almost impossible to mimic in a domestic captive setting. We should be very mindful and judicious about keeping "pet" fishes. When we purchase fishes, we may be funding the collection of wild fishes, which is often very harmful to their habitats, their populations, and the individuals themselves. Worldwide survival rates are estimated at 90% mortality from capture to destination, and another 90% mortality over the first year.
How would you define an individual animal's "requirement"?
(IMHO, BTW, an organism's requirement is an environment where the organism can find all its physical and mental needs)
Also, what are your opinions on Project Piaba, an attempt to use small-scale collection of wild fishes as a basis for habitat protection?
I agree with your definition.
Will try to look up Project Piaba.
How to tell if they're satisfied? I would say these signs: 1) healthy, 2) active, 3) not displaying neurotic or other negative behaviors, 4) good appetite. There is evidence for play in some fishes, including in captivity; that would be a really special sign that there is some happiness present.
Hi there Jonathan, thanks for an insightful AMA. I saw a clip on TV the day, of an orangutan using a saw to cut through a tree branch. Just how screwed are we?
That sort of video symbolizes the state of our ignorance of animals and their inner lives. They have them, inner lives. They are not just alive. They have biology, but also biography. We have vastly underestimated that aspect of them. And what irony that an orangutan should be sawing through a tree branch, while we use chainsaws to destroy their forest habitats.
Whenever I see betta fish being sold it breaks my heart. People seem to believe that they like the isolation, and are quite happy living in a softball sized home on someone's office desk for their short lives. What's the real story?
It's a travesty. I discuss this in my book.
I am an Immunologist and some of the research done on the immune system is done on Zebra Fish and lead to important discoveries. I was wondering what your stance is on this and if fish should be used for medical research?
For sure, we've made discoveries and advances from animal research, but we also make discoveries from non-animal research and the latter is morally preferable. For me, if animals are going to be used non-benignly (after all, observing them in the wild is also animal research), then we should seek ways to minimize harms. If their pain is as real to them as ours is to us, then it follows, I believe, that we should apply the same ethical principles (and protections) that we apply to the use of humans in research.
Unfortunately due to fish being fish, like for example drosophila, the regulations are lower as compared to rodents or non-human primates. Unfortunately not using them is not possible as in-vivo models are needed in most instances. Is there anything you would do different in terms of techniques or ethically which we are doing currently when using Zebra fish?
Non sequitur. We are never forced to use any animal (or human) in harmful experiments. Ultimately, we choose to, and we have the option to choose not to.
How did you get started working with fish?
Do you study them directly or is it more literature reviews? If it's directly, do you work with fish in their natural settings? Or in aquariums in labs?
I'm curious about the various opportunities available for ichthyology. I imagine it's a pretty competitive field, since it's probably small, unless you're interested in something like aquatic agriculture.
I studied bats for my graduate degrees. I have observed wild and captive fishes, but I have not directly done scientific research on fishes. My book relies on the research of others.
If you want to study fishes, I think the best approach is to look for scientists doing work that interests you, then approach them. You'll need an undergraduate degree first, preferably in the life sciences. However, many undergrad students are welcomed into graduate research labs, too.
How did you get involved in working with animals like this? Maybe I'd enjoy a career like that.
I came up with an awesome idea earlier, what if there was a guy or like a guy and a girl who joined some chimps, etc. in a zoo and just hung out with them for a few weeks and tried to teach the animals new things, like what clothing is or that humans have sex too but it looks different... do you think our closest living relatives are conscious, like can they learn new things and have emotions too? Do they think and doubt and ponder, or are they just robots? And if they are just robots then why are we different?
thanks I hope my question isnt annoying
I think their experiences are as real and as intense as ours, sometimes less so, sometimes more so.
What does a fish know, Jon?
Tons. Read WAFK.
What, if anything, in your view, makes humans unique in terms of sentience/cognition?
It's widely held that our language has led to some types of emotions that may be unique to humans. HOwever, other animals also do unique things, so we should be aware that they may also have experiences that we do not. Some fishes communicate with electricity, elephants feel the world with their trunks and communicate seismically through their feet, and dogs (and moths) can smell things that we don't even notice. So we should be careful about uniqueness...it is everywhere.
What is the difference between wheather an animal has emotions and wheather they are concious?
Compared to a basic intelligence test how hard is it to prove animals are concious?
Ultimately, it is impossible to "prove" that an animal is conscious, as it is to prove that another human is conscious!
Ok, here's an easy one... or a hard one. What is your favorite fish species? And why is it your favorite?
A hard one. So many to choose from (about 32,000 described species to be exact). My favorite names include the Sarcastic Fringehead (which I nominate for most outrageous), the Hairy-jawed Sackmouth (least flattering), the Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (longest), and Slippery Dick (rudest). But that's just names. For beauty, the Yellow-tailed Choris gets a nod (but there's tons of competition), for sheer majesty it's hard to beat a Great White Shark, and for eccentric mystery, the Ocean Sunfish. Short answer: I can't decide!
I guess that question was like asking for someone's favorite movie. How can you choose just one when there are so many great movies?
Refining the question then, of the fish you've studied, which have you found to be the most interesting and why? (I'll admit to having an only passing knowledge of fish, but your book looks interesting.)
I reserve a special kind of affection for the cleaner wrasses--several species who make a living by plucking parasites, dead skin, algae and other undesirables from "client" fishes who line up to wait their turn to be serviced on reefs. It's a well-studied, very complex symbiosis that involves episodic memory, audience effects, account-keeping, brown-nosing, cheating, deception, and Machiavellian scheming. I'm not making this up! The cleaner wrasses perform a valuable service and they do it tirelessly. Food for a spa treatment with many twists. One can't help but admire these energetic, clever fishes. And brave: they will swim into the gaping mouths of predators 100s of times their size to pluck plaque and presumably other tidbits from their teeth. Clients seem never to eat their cleaners--it just isn't good business to eat your partner.
Do you ever have trouble convincing general public and non-scientists that your work is important? I often get frustrated because it seems like people only want to hear about charismatic megafauna or studies that benefit humans.
It's a challenge, but the animals are great ambassadors and if I have 45 mins and a PowerPoint projector I think I can raise most of the eyebrows in the room!
Do you like a fish called wanda jokes?
That parrotfish isn't pining, he's passed on!
Isn't it strange that aquariums serve fish in their restaurants? Even the Monterey Aquarium, whom I thought was among the most principled.
Yes, strange. Hypocritical, perhaps?
What are some of the welfare asks advocates can ask companies or governments to make with regards to fish?
Replace them with non-animal methods (which are also usually quicker and less expensive, and typically more accurate). Use fewer. Refine methods to reduce, preferably eliminate pain and suffering. Go into the vegan baking business...it's a goldmine out there. (yes, that last remark was flippant.)
Dr. Balcombe - Human beings have developed various methods for communicating privately using cryptography and encryption.
Do animals use any similar methods to obscure their messages when they communicate? Thank you.
there's a nice example I describe in the book involving covert facial recognition by ambon damselfishes, whose unique face patterns are only visible in the UV light spectrum that is invisible to their predators, allowing them to communicate without compromising their camouflage.
Does my salmon know how delicious I think he is? Especially with a brown sugar balsamic vinegar glaze?
I doubt he does, but I also doubt you could find your way back to your natal stream from the ocean using your sense of smell.
Do you feel that sentience is more of a gradient or black and white?
View HistoryShare Link