Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Singing Toadfishes in Space

Like the Lizardfishes from a few posts back, here is another fish family named for a land-dwelling look alike. The toadfishes make up the family Batrachoididae and are benthic ambush predators that use their ugly appearance for camouflage as they lie in wait for their prey. They're quite hardy creatures, too! Some individuals have remained alive for more than 24 hours out of the water (Paxton and Eschmeyer 1994).

Here are some pictures of YPM 8923, species Opsanus tau, collected on October 6, 1932, off of Long Island, NY:





The most interesting thing about toadfishes, I think, is that they are known for their singing. During mating season different toadfish species produce a variety of sounds using their swim bladders. Opsanus tau in particular produces a loud "boatwhistle" sound that is famous for keeping people living near the shores of North America's east coast awake (Paxton and Eschmeyer 1994). It's no wonder that they make such a loud noise, too-- the muscles in their swim bladder that contract to make this noise are the fastest contracting vertebrate muscles known (they contract at a rate of 200 Hz). The next fastest muscles known are those at the base of the tail in rattlesnakes, and they only contract at half the rate of Opsanus tau's (Rome et al. 1996).

And yet another interesting fact about species Opsanus tau-- NASA has sent a bunch of these guys to space! NASA scientists use them to perform experiments designed to better understand balance disorders that affect astronauts in space. Why toadfishes for this task? The structure of their inner ear--the place that helps control balance--is very similar to ours, making it a good model organism. Who would have thought...


References:

Paxton, John R., and W.N. Eschmeyer. 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Academic Press, San Diego.

Rome L.C., D.A. Syme, S. Hollingsworth, S.L. Lindstedt, and S.M. Baylor. 1996. The whistle and the rattle: the design of sound producing muscles. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 93:8095-8100.

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