Getting to Know the Neighbours

Since our recent hike in scuba diving: five dives for me in the last week. Boom! I have never been confronted with so many fish.

A few game fish have flown past our anchorage, like the bar jack and the cero. Mostly though, on this Barbados fringing reef, they’re tinkly, colourful damsel and angelfish. Little groupers like red and rock hind. Schools of chromis and blue tang. Oh and parrotfish. I almost forgot the eels too – Jack’s mates. I forget they’re fish.

Since they are all around us, I’ve started reading a book about fish. Patchy with the info – but only because I don’t read it enough. Anyhow, I’m starting to pay attention. This is what I’ve found so far:

“According to FishBase—the largest and most often consulted online database on fishes—33,249 species, in 564 families and 64 orders, had been described as of January 2016. That’s more than the combined total of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.”

— What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins by Jonathan Balcombe

A lot of numbers, no? Breaking it down, fish make up more than 60% of all animal species with a backbone. And they’re the first widespread animal to evolve them.

Nowadays fish exist in three main groups; the ones without real jaws: the agnathans. Next, the cartilaginous fish or chondrichthyans which are the sharks and rays. Lastly the bony fish: teleosts. It’s Greek for ‘complete bone’.

So zoology lesson complete. Thanks for listening 🤪. The evolutionary classification of fishes is a bit of a misnomer though. This is because apparently, according to Balcombe’s book, a tuna is actually more closely related to humans than it is to sharks! These two groups have spent so much time evolving, they’re about as far apart as mammals and birds. I know, right. It’s a brain boggler.

Here’s another boggler. Fish aren’t stupid. I mean, that isn’t a surprise really. It’s just the small relative brain size (the ratio of brain weight to body weight) makes fishes seem, ahem, a little dim. The reality is that our cerebrocentric view (big word – I stole it) forgets that fish aren’t burdened as much by gravity as we landlubbers are. Their practically weightless environment means they don’t have to limit their body size by their brain size. They aren’t heavy – literally.

Still, I’ve never been able to fathom fish. What is happening in their emotional lives? After all, it’s a bit hard to guess at feelings when you aren’t raising your eyebrows or speaking. The question is what else can we use – instead of expression and sound to help us understand their world?

Find a novelist to answer this question. Novelists being the experts of internal interpretation. Gustave Flaubert for example, the pioneer of the modern novel, says, ‘There is no truth. There is only perception,’

Thank you Flaubert. This means in order to understand the fishes, we have to understand their sensory world. How they smell, taste, see, hear and experience touch – in their world.

These are our flashy neighbours.

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