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Latest Book: What A Fish Knows

The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins:

About The Book:

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Do fishes think? Do they really have three-second memories? And can they recognize the humans who peer back at them from above the surface of the water?

In What a Fish Knows, the myth-busting ethologist Jonathan Balcombe addresses these questions and more, taking us under the sea, through streams and estuaries, and to the other side of the aquarium glass to reveal the surprising capabilities of fishes.

Although there are more than thirty thousand species of fish―more than all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined―we rarely consider how individual fishes think, feel, and behave.

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NPR Interview

Fishes Have Feelings Too: The Inner Lives Of Our Underwater Cousins:

John Facebook ImageWhen you think about fish, it’s probably at dinnertime.

Author Jonathan Balcombe, on the other hand, spends a lot of time pondering the emotional lives of fish.

Balcombe, who serves as the director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy, tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that humans are closer to understanding fish than ever before.

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Book Reviews

Book Review in Nature

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins

Jonathan Balcombe Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2016)
ISBN: 9780374288211

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More than 30,000 species of fish — about half of all vertebrates — roam global waters. And as ethologist Jonathan Balcombe notes in this engrossing study, breakthroughs are revealing sophisticated piscine behaviours.

Balcombe glides from perception and cognition to tool use, pausing at marvels such as ocular migration in flounders and the capacity of the frillfin goby (Bathygobius soporator) to memorize the topography of the intertidal zone.

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Essays & Articles

Fishes Use Problem Solving and Invent Tools

While diving off the Micronesian archipelago of Pulau, evolutionary biologist Giacomo Bernardi witnessed something unusual and was lucky enough to capture it on film.

An orange-dotted tuskfish (Choerodon anchorago) uncovered a clam buried in the sand by blowing water at it, picked up the mollusk in its mouth and carried it to a large rock 30 yards away. Then, using several rapid head flicks and well-timed releases, the fish eventually cracked open the clam against the rock.

In the ensuing 20 minutes, the tuskfish ate three clams, using the same sequence of behaviors to smash them.

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Essays & Articles

Piebald Ethics

This morning, still recovering from jetlag, I went for a bike ride as the sun rose on the suburbs north of Washington, DC.

As I cycled through one of the lovely state parks that grace my neighborhood, I spooked a small herd of deer enjoying some browse at the border of a woodland and field.

At first I thought they were accompanied by a domestic dog, until I realized I had seen a piebald white-tailed deer.

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Book Reviews

Open Letters Monthly – What A Fish Knows

Closing The Buffet

Review by Justin Hickey on Open Letters Monthly (June 01, 2016)

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In 1949, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz introduced his concept of the “baby schema,” which theorized that the large eyes, shorter snouts, and round wobbly heads of infant animals trigger caregiving urges in their parents.

That this phenomenon crosses species lines is irrefutable, considering how much time we spend cooing at puppies and kittens—true fur babies—and any adult creature possessing a hint of benign fluffiness.

If Lorenz were alive today, he’d nod in sage commiseration at our vast internet cache of videos and memes celebrating owls, raccoons, pigs, hedgehogs, rabbits, and ducklings (to name a few, in this reviewer’s order of Descending Cuddliness).

How about fishes?

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Fishes Have Feelings Too

First Published: May 15th, 2016 – The New York Times

In March, two marine biologists published a study of giant manta rays responding to their reflections in a large mirror installed in their aquarium in the Bahamas. The two captive rays circled in front of the mirror, blew bubbles and performed unusual body movements as if checking their reflection. They made no obvious attempt to interact socially with their reflections, suggesting that they did not mistake what they saw as other rays.

The scientists concluded that the mantas seemed to be recognizing their reflections as themselves.

Mirror self-recognition is a big deal. It indicates self-awareness, a mental attribute previously known only among creatures of noted intelligence like great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies. We don’t usually think of fishes as smart, let alone self-aware.

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Elephants Samburu
Essays & Articles

Nature’s Glass Is Half Full – Not Half Empty

A recent article by British scientist and author Matt Ridley denies rats the capacity for empathy primarily on the flimsy basis that studies on ants show them helping a distressed fellow ant. As it seems “absurd” to attribute empathic suffering to a social insect, we should not stoop to crediting such feelings to rats either, according to Ridley, and the authors of a recent paper in Biology Letters.

For the record, I have great respect for ants, and I won’t jump to conclusions about their capacities. But why on earth would we use ants as a yardstick for the emotional capacities of rats—a species with a demonstrated capacity for laughter, pessimism, emotional fever, and metacognition (awareness of one’s own knowledge)?

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National Post
Book Reviews

Fishes In Good Company

Book Review Of What A Fish Knows:

What A Fish Knows Book Cover - SmallPaul Taunton’s list of must-read books for June in The National Post includes, “What A Fish Knows”:

From big-bet debuts to money-in-the-bank authors – not to mention a book about fish that might change the way you feel about your favourite breaded filet – here’s the National Post’s Books Editor’s recommended reading for June.

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Backyard Nature
Essays & Articles

Backyard Nature

It’s a Sunday morning and I’m sitting on my deck in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., which abuts a magnificent woodland plot.

In the winter one can just see through the naked trees to a field 500 feet beyond. But in summer this space is transformed into a lush green world. Regardless of the season it throngs with life, but it seems that summer days are the busiest. I have the added good fortune of having neighbors who ply the wildlife with a smorgasbord of bird and mammal feeders, so it sometimes looks like rush-hour at Grand Central Station.

This morning I’ve been out here for an hour and as usual there are plenty of little stories unraveling.

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Dog Sniffing
Essays & Articles

A Dog’s Will

This morning as I went to fetch the paper from the front porch of my town-home in suburban Maryland, a neighbor took her dog across the parking area to a central green-space for a morning bathroom break.

I’ve seen this mid-sized, thickly furred canine on her morning ablutions before.

Usually it’s the man of the house who is on the other end of the retractable leash, but in either case, there’s a sense of rush-hour haste to the operation. These folks clearly have jobs to get to and the AM dog shift is all business—I only hope the evening walk is less perfunctory.

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Book Reviews

Fangirl Nation On – What A Fish Knows

What A Fish Knows Puts Fish In The Limelight

Book Review on FanGirl Nation by Jessica Greenlee (June 01, 2016)

What A Fish Knows Book Cover - SmallJonathan Balcombe is talking about not only What a Fish Knows but how they know it, what they experience, and the question of whether or not they qualify as self-aware, sentient beings.His answer to that last is an emphatic “yes,” and he has the studies to back his conclusion.

Throughout the book, he examines fish senses, intelligence, social and family lives, and concludes with a chapter on fishing. He also points out that not all fishes are alike and we have not come close to studying the wide variety out there.

The book is fascinating, bringing to light an astonishing number of unexpected revelations about fish.

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Essays & Articles


This morning I went grocery shopping at my local Whole Foods market. Whole Foods is the largest natural foods supermarket chain in the world. I consider people who shop here to be relatively enlightened.

I saw at least six people wearing coats with real fur trim collars.

Fur Fact: the fur industry has staged something of a come-back since it reached its low point in the mid-nineties.

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Essays & Articles

A Sparrow’s Life

Yesterday as I stepped from the train on my way to a Bach concert, I noticed a house sparrow lying prostrate on the platform next to a rain shelter.

No doubt she had flown into the shelter’s window. Hoping she was just stunned, I picked her up. Alas, she was quite dead.

I stroked the soft feathers on her neck and head, noted the robustness of her pink beak, and admired the perfect symmetry of her tail feathers before depositing her beneath some ground ivy, where ants, flies and other members of nature’s recycling crew might perform their services undisturbed.

House sparrows are commonplace in the United States, and Washington, D.C. is no exception. They lurk in my neighborhood, chirping from eaves, taking shelter beneath cars, and holding noisy palavers inside cedar trees.

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Fox Sparrow
Essays & Articles


The rarity was a fox sparrow, by no means an endangered species, but one of those birds that most people who share its geographic range will go through life with no clue to its existence.

As a bird watcher for over 30 years, I had encountered fox sparrows on just four prior occasions. Through the naked eye, a fox sparrow wouldn’t merit a second glance. A small brown bird flitting furtively in the brush, they are what some might dismiss colloquially as an LBJ.

Through binoculars, “little brown job” resolves into a strikingly handsome creature: eyes ringed with white, arrow-head spots corn-rowed down a snow-white breast and converging into a central spot, and a robust, bi-colored beak. For me, a fox sparrow sighting instantly transforms even the most ordinary nature foray into a memorable event.

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The Animal Power Of Video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video is worth a thousand pictures. One of the rewards of being a passionate animal observer in this day and age is the proliferation of video clips that circulate on YouTube and Facebook. These authentic segments of animal lives provide precious glimpses of their emotions, and they often belie common prejudices about animals and nature.

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Book: The Exultant Ark

About The Book:

The Exultant Ark Book Cover - SmallNature documentaries often depict animal life as a grim struggle for survival, but this visually stunning book opens our eyes to a different, more scientifically up-to-date way of looking at the animal kingdom.

In more than one hundred thirty striking images, The Exultant Ark celebrates the full range of animal experience with dramatic portraits of animal pleasure ranging from the charismatic and familiar to the obscure and bizarre.

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Book: Second Nature

The Inner Lives of Animals

Second Nature Book CoverAbout The Book:

For centuries we believed that humans were the only ones that mattered. The idea that animals had feelings was either dismissed or considered heresy. Today, that’s all changing.

New scientific studies of animal behavior reveal perceptions, intelligences, awareness and social skills that would have been deemed fantasy a generation ago. The implications make our troubled relationship to animals one of the most pressing moral issues of our time.

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Book: Pleasurable Kingdom

Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good

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About The Book:

The recognition of animal pain and stress, once controversial, is now acknowledged by legislation in many countries, but there is no formal recognition of animals’ ability to feel pleasure.

Pleasurable Kingdom is the first book for lay-readers to present new evidence that animals – like humans – enjoy themselves.

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Are We Really Nicer Than Vampire Bats?

The Opinion Pages – New York Times:

Published: May 19 2011

To the Editor:

David Brooks draws an unfair line between humans and other animals.

Virtue is widespread in nature. Studies have found that chimpanzees show spontaneous helping behavior toward humans and fellow chimps. They also console victims of violence and show gratitude for favors. Chickens, prairie dogs, songbirds and others sound the alarm at an approaching predator, heightening personal risk by drawing attention to themselves.

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