Biologists find smart fish

2012-10-21 21:59

Paris - Biologists reported on Sunday that silvery fish have found a smart way to get around the laws of physics so that they maintain their reflective camouflage in open water.

Sprats, sardines and herrings have a skin that neutralises the polarisation of light, enabling them to keep their protective silver cloak, they found.

Polarisation describes how light waves travel. Light that is reflected becomes horizontally polarised, meaning that the waves are all oscillating horizontally.

Under a law called the "Brewster window effect," polarisation leads to a drop in the amount of light that is reflected.

This in theory should pose a problem for shoal fish which swim in the mid-water zone, where they have to reflect light from the sky so that they meld into the background and thwart predators.

Reporting in the journal Nature Photonics, British researchers found that underneath the scales of these fish lie a remarkable layer of skin called the stratum argenteum.

It comprises alternating layers of proteins, one called guanine crystals that highly refract light, and another, called a cytoplasm, which has a low index for refracting light.

The investigators found that there were two kinds of guanine crystals, each with slightly different optical properties. Working together, rather like two refractive lenses, they neutralise polarisation.


Nicholas Roberts at Britain's University of Bristol said: "We measured how different polarisations of light were reflected from the skin and found that all polarisations were reflected the same way.

"By creating a non-polarising reflector, the fish have found a way to maximise their reflectivity over all the angles they are viewed from. This helps the fish best match the light environment of the open ocean, making them less likely to be seen."

The research opens the way to multi-layered mirrors, made from polymers, which mimic the fish skin, the scientists hope.

It could be a boost for optical fibres, which use non-polarising reflectors to enhance light transmission, said lead author Tom Jordan.

"These man-made reflectors currently require the use of materials with specific optical properties that are not always ideal.

"The mechanism that has evolved in fish overcomes this current design limitation and provides a new way to manufacture [them]."

  • - 2012-10-21 23:37

    Guanine is a nucleic acid - not a protein. Cytoplasm is essentially the water found within cell - again, not a protein...

      Frank Cornelissen - 2012-10-21 23:43

      Well, they do swim in schools....

      robbie.crouch - 2012-10-22 08:15

      It is the journalist making assumptions not the scientists.

  • Roger Zipp - 2012-10-22 06:24

    Why say evolution where no data is available from the study to support or contradict the overplayed assertion. Please correct the manuscript or send the results which specifically indicate similar fish without as good a skin have died out for this specific reason. Send to

      jacowium - 2012-10-22 08:14

      The marine biologists who do these studies would help you by pointing you to their peer-reviewed research and publications. But you have to make the effort to contact them directly... It's no use asking that in a comments section underneath a News24 article. But here is a hint for you: there is a hell lot of data available from studies. You can learn all about that by enrolling for a natural sciences course at a tertiary institution.

  • Pieter Olivier - 2012-10-22 06:28

    Their reflective abilty aquired through millions of years of evolution does not make them smart. That is not a smart headline

  • PikesNo1 - 2012-10-22 07:08

    Intelligent design from an intelligent creator......

      jacowium - 2012-10-22 08:18

      Oh, okay. If you say so, then it must be so. The results of decades of marine studies must be all wrong. Not that scientists are preoccupied with the "is there an intelligent creator" question... they're merely doing studies and publishing peer-approved results.

      Thermophage - 2012-10-22 08:27

      lol....ya sure man, live in your fantasy world.

      coenraad.vanderwesthuizen.3 - 2012-10-22 08:28

      No to mention the slew of "design faults" from a supposedly "perfect" designer".

  • bianca.cooper1 - 2012-10-22 12:30

    Must be seriously smart fish to overcome the laws of physics, as the writer implies. I'll get excited when these fish discover perpetual energy. Get someone with a basic grasp of science to write these things.

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