It smells fishy: Copper prevents fish from avoiding danger

July 04, 2013

Fish fail to detect danger in copper-polluted water. A new study, to be presented at the meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology on the 5th of July, shows that fish cannot smell a danger odor signal emitted by other fish in waters contaminated with copper.

Research conducted by Dr Bill Dew at the University of Lethbridge in Canada looked for the first time at the effect of the metal contaminants nickel and copper on specific fish olfactory sensory neurons, and how these affect the fish's ability to detect and swim away from an odour released by other fish of the same species (conspecifics) when a predator attack takes place.

Dr Bill Dew said: "Our research shows that copper affects the function of a specific type of olfactory neurons in fish, preventing them from detecting important olfactory signals used to detect fish injured by predation."

Using a technique that measures the response of the olfactory system to odours, the researchers showed that copper and nickel affect the ability of different cells to detect odours. Furthermore, using a series of anti-predator trials, which measured avoidance of fish to a conspecific skin extract, the researchers found that fathead minnows exposed to copper do not avoid the skin extract, while unexposed and nickel-exposed fish do.

Dr Bill Dew said: "This means that fish in an environment contaminated with copper would not be able to detect compounds released during a predation event and potentially not avoid predators, while fish in a nickel contaminated environment would be able to detect these compounds and undertake predator-avoidance behaviours."
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Society for Experimental Biology

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