Fish navigation in the vertical dimension: can fish use hydrostatic pressure to determine depth?


Robert I Holbrook, Animal Behaviour Research Group, Department of Zoology, South Parks Road, University of Oxford, OX1 3PS, UK
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Fish live in complex volumetric habitats, and as such, face a challenging environment through which to navigate. This problem might be simplified if fish could monitor their depth and determine their position within the water column. One possible cue that they could use to ascertain their vertical position is hydrostatic pressure, which varies linearly with depth. Until recently it was assumed that fish were incapable of using hydrostatic pressure to measure depth as they do not possess a mechanism to sense absolute pressure. However, in a recent article by G. Taylor et al., we describe a novel mechanism whereby fish could determine their depth by using the rate in change of pressure mediated by changes in swim-bladder volume, together with their vertical speed. This mechanism requires fish to be able to sense changes in pressure using their swim-bladder. Here, we examine fish sensitivity towards hydrostatic pressure by reviewing the literature from behavioural and physiological experiments. This research suggests that fish are acutely sensitive to the magnitude and sign of hydrostatic pressure changes, via changes in the volume of the swim-bladder. We argue that fish have the necessary physiological measurements to sense the rate in change of pressure, meaning they are able to use the mechanism proposed by Taylor et al. to determine their vertical location. This has profound implications for the study of navigation through volumes, by providing a reliable global cue that fish can use to determine their depth.