The team investigated the behaviour of sticklebacks and minnows in response to ship noise. Photo: Irene Voellmy

Water racket - fish reactions to noise vary between species

Fish exposed to increased noise levels consume less food and show more stress-related behaviour, according to new research from the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter. 

However, the way fish decreased their food intake differed between the two British species tested.

When exposed to noise, three-spined sticklebacks made more foraging errors, whereas European minnows tended to socially interact more often with their companion fish or to reduce activity.

The team used controlled laboratory experiments to investigate how the foraging behaviour of sticklebacks and minnows change in response to playbacks of ship noise. Such noise is one of the most common human-generated sounds in aquatic environments and its potentially detrimental effects are of growing concern.

In the real world, decreased overall food intake in response to noise could impair growth rates, survival and breeding success. Fish may invest more time in foraging to compensate which could increase their risk of being eaten by predators and also reduce time available for other activities.  Moreover, fish making more foraging errors when exposed to noise may risk poisoning which would further impact on their fitness and survival.

Dr Steve Simpson, of Biosciences at the University of Exeter, said: “We are only just scratching the surface on the different ways that human noise can affect different fish species. By taking these experiments into the wild we plan to identify the species and life stages most vulnerable and determine the spatial scale over which animals are affected by different noisy activities.”

Lead author Dr Irene Voellmy, from Bristol's School of Biological Sciences, said: "Since sticklebacks and minnows showed different responses to noise, this study indicates that fish species may be differently affected with potential consequences for population and species community levels."

The article, 'Acoustic noise reduces foraging success in two sympatric fish species via different mechanisms' by Irene K. Voellmy, Julia Purser, Douglas Flynn, Philippa Kennedy, Stephen D. Simpson and Andrew N. Radford is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Date: 4 March 2014

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