Can fish have regional accents? These cod do, scientists say

You say potato and I say potahto. You say tomato and I say tomahto — potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto — and so do cod, kind of, according to British scientists who launched a study Wednesday into the regional accents of the cold-water fish species.

"Recordings of American cod are very different to those from their European cousins, so there is a precedent," said Steve Simpson, a professor of marine biology at the University of Exeter, who is leading the research. "This species is highly vocal with traditional breeding grounds established over hundreds or even thousands of years, so the potential for regionalism is there."

Simpson, who specializes in bioacoustics — sounds produced by living organisms — said previous underwater recordings of cod have shown they make different sounds in different regional spawning grounds just like birds, bears and other animals. "They have have quite a diverse range," he said. Cod found in U.S. waters display a deep thumping sound while those taped in Norway have a higher-pitched sound, with a long growl.

"These sounds are key for the cod because it is effectively the love song of the male trying to persuade the female to release her eggs. It carries a lot of information about who he is, what condition he is in and how big he is, and it's only if he gets those things right that the female will decide to release her eggs," Simpson said.

The research is being funded because the British government is concerned about how noise effects the ocean and other seascapes, he said. "Because we know that cod and other fish have very important acoustic behaviors, we want to know how maritime noise pollution (such as ships and wind farms) drown out their sounds."

Simpson thinks it is likely British cod have their own distinct dialect but more research needs to be done to establish its particular qualities — if it prefers tomahto to tomato.

"Genetic studies have demonstrated that the different spawning groups in the United Kingdom are pretty isolated from one another from a reproductive standpoint," he said.

Translation? Just as Britons from inner London sound vastly different to those from Liverpool, so might cod populations around the British Isles have different "accents."

(For further instruction on that point, compare the actor and London native Michael Caine's "cockney" accent to the Liverpudlian "scouse" cadence of the Beatles' John Lennon.)

Copyright 2016 USA TODAY


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