Fish Using Rock as a Tool Caught on Video for First Time

And now, ladies and gentlemen, a fish smashing a clamshell against a rock…

After a few thrashes, the fish makes off with the now-unprotected claim meat. This is significant because, according to Scientific American, it’s “apparently the first video documenting tool-use in a fish, and the fourth known example of the behavior in these animals.” (Click here for the longer version of the video, in which the fish digs out the clam from the ocean floor before spiriting it off to its rock-smashing place.)

The Chron today reports more on the discovery, made by Giacomo Bernardi, an evolutionary biologist at UC Santa Cruz.

(O)n a recent diving expedition to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef he discovered and filmed a wrasse, called an orange dotted tusk fish, using an underwater rock as an anvil to smash a clam’s shell and allow it to devour the flesh inside.

It was, Bernardi said, a remarkable example of how evolution has endowed these fish with the ability to “think forward” and to reason how to obtain hidden sources of food.

And a deeper analysis from Bernardi’s recently published account (pdf) in Coral Reefs:

On July 12, 2009, at 10:30 h in Palau, in 4 feet of water, an individual C. anchorago was observed cracking bivalves using a rock as an anvil. After two such events, we started filming the behavior, which was repeated a third time. Each event lasted less than 5 min, for a total observation time of approximately 20 min. The fish first dug out the bivalve by fanning sand with its pectoral fin and then took the mollusk to a rock, or coral head, where it was crushed in a similar way to what has been described for C. schoenleinii.

The use of rock as an anvil has now been described from different places in three genera of wrasses, the ancestral Choerodon, and the more derived Halichoeres and Thalassoma, which span the majority of the evolutionary history of wrasses (50 million years, Cowman et al. 2009). All observations were similar in both the use of a rock as an anvil to open or reduce the size of a bivalve to making it edible and the sideways movement of the head associated with it. The similarity of the behaviors suggests that either they emerged independently or they correspond to a deep-seated behavioral trait. If this were the case, we predict that other wrasses are likely to also use these forms of tools. The presence or absence of such a behavior in other groups of fishes will determine whether the use of a rock as an anvil is unique to wrasses or whether it can be generalized to other groups of fishes.

In a statement, Bernardi also boiled it down for the masses. The fish’s action “requires a lot of forward thinking, because there are a number of steps involved,” he said. “For a fish, it’s a pretty big deal.”

You can watch a better-quality version of the video here.

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Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

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