What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins – Scientific American

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins – Scientific American

An underwater exploration that overturns myths about fishes and reveals their complex lives, from tool use to social behavior

There are more than thirty thousand species of fish—more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. But for all their breathtaking diversity and beauty, we rarely consider how fish think, feel, and behave. In What a Fish Knows, the ethologist Jonathan Balcombe takes us under the sea and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal what fishes can do, how they do it, and why. Introducing the latest revelations in animal behavior and biology, Balcombe upends our assumptions about fish, exposing them not as unfeeling, dead-eyed creatures but as sentient, aware, social—even Machiavellian. They conduct elaborate courtship rituals and develop lifelong bonds with shoal-mates. They also plan, hunt cooperatively, use tools, punish wrongdoers, curry favor, and deceive one another. Fish possess sophisticated senses that rival our own. The reef-dwelling damselfish identifies its brethren by face patterns visible only in ultraviolet light, and some species communicate among themselves in murky waters using electric signals. Highlighting these breakthrough discoveries and others from his own encounters with fish, Balcombe inspires a more enlightened appraisal of marine life.

An illuminating journey into the world of underwater science, What a Fish Knows will forever change your view of our aquatic cousins—your pet goldfish included.


What a Fish Knows will leave you humbled, thrilled, and floored. Jonathan Balcombe delivers a revelation on every page, presenting jaw-dropping studies and stories that should reshape our understanding of, and compassion for, some of the most diverse and successful animals who have ever lived. After reading this, you will never be able to deny that fishes love their lives, as we love ours, and that they, too, are vividly emotional, intelligent, and conscious. Bravo!” —Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, a National Book Award Finalist

“I thought I knew a lot about fish. Then I read What a Fish Knows. And now I know a lot about fish! Stunning in the way it reveals so many astonishing things about the fish who populate planet Earth in their trillions, this book is sure to ‘deepen’ your appreciation for our fin-bearing co-voyagers, the bright strangers whose world we share.” —Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

“Based on the latest scientific research, What a Fish Knows offers an eye-opening tour of the social, mental, and emotional lives of fishes. Who knew fish use tools, appreciate music, fall for the same optical illusions we do, and engage in both cooperative hunting and some very kinky sex? Jonathan Balcombe’s book is popular science writing at its best. It will spin your head around.” —Hal Herzog, author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals

“Fishes are greatly misunderstood and grievously maligned. Now, in What a Fish Knows, Jonathan Balcombe uses the latest science to provide a comprehensive picture of just who fishes are. You will learn that fishes have distinct personalities, experience a wide range of emotions, form intricate social relationships, and are wonderful parents. Indeed, this forward-looking and long overdue book is an integral part of reconnecting with the fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.” —Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, author ofThe Emotional Lives of Animals and Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence

What a Fish Knows is the best book on fish I have ever read. Sprinkled throughout with engrossing anecdotes and humor, Jonathan Balcombe’s inspiring treatise takes the reader on a fascinating and deeply moving journey into the lives of fish, showing them to be sentient individuals with personalities, minds, and relationships, not primitive, dimwitted, and unfeeling creatures who feel no pain when chased, caught, and killed. Balcombe’s eloquent, persuasive, highly readable tour de force has a single, luminous message: fish deserve more respect, care, and protection.” —Chris Palmer, author of Shooting in the Wild and Confessions of a Wildlife Filmmaker

The Authors

Jonathan Balcombe is the director of animal sentience at the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy and the author of four books, including Second Nature and Pleasurable Kingdom. A popular radio guest, he has also appeared on the National Geographic Channel and in several documentaries, and he is a frequent contributor of features and opinions to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and more. Visit his website at www.jonathanbalcombe.com and follow him on Twitter at @pumilla66.

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