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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Spitting Fish

Air Date: Week of July 19, 2002

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An aquarium in England is re-training Amazonian archer fish to spit for their meals. Aquarium manager Jane Wharmby explains this process to host Diane Toomey.

Transcript

It seems that officials at the Blue Reef Aquarium in Portsmouth, England have a little problem. Their archer fish aren’t spitting. Spitting is the way these natives of the Amazon hunt for insects. Now, keepers at the Aquarium are trying to fix the fish. Joining me from her office is the Aquarium’s manager Jane Wharmby. Jane, describe how the archer fish catches food in the wild.

WHARMBY: They have the flattop. So they can see above the water. They would then swim along the surface. And when they see a fly or an insect of some sort, they drill water into their mouth and shoot it at them to knock the fly into the water, which they then have to be quite quick to get hold of once it’s there.

TOOMEY: So now you’ve come to find that your archer fish don’t spit anymore. Why is that?

WHARMBY: Well, they were new. We hadn’t had them before. We actually built the aquarium in the winter of this year. So the fish were new to us. They had been fed in their tank only fish flakes which were put into the water. So that’s the equivalent or you or I sitting in an armchair and having food delivered to us everyday and losing the ability to cook.

TOOMEY: The good life, the comfy life.

WHARMBY: The comfy life. They had had a very easy life.

TOOMEY: So, you’ve started a training program to get them to spit again.

WHARMBY: That’s right.

TOOMEY: What does that training program entail?

WHARMBY: We started off by putting their food onto the glass of the tank. So they had to come to the surface and they could take the food just from the edge of the waterline, if you like. And then gradually, we built it higher and higher, until they were actually spitting a small distance.

And then we had the bright idea of making it even more natural for them. And we brought the little plastic joke flies, and built them a mobile out of it. So, the flies hung at different heights above the water. And we hung it up there. And, it did take them a few days to accept that this was what we were going to do.

And then we would put their food onto the flies. And now, they quite happily will spit away until their food drops off, and then they’ll eat it.

TOOMEY: Jane, why did you want them to spit? What difference does it make since these animals aren’t going to be released into the wild and they’re getting their food anyway? What’s the philosophy behind this?

WHARMBY: We believe that the animals that we keep here should behave and be kept in as natural an environment as possible. And to do that we have to provide them, if you like, with that environment. And of course, the other thing, as a public aquarium, if you’re displaying something that has a peculiar behavior, then you ought to encourage them to use that behavior because the customers like to see what these fish do in the wild.

TOOMEY: Jane Wharmby is manager of the Blue Reef Aquarium in Portsmouth, England. She spoke to us from her office there. Jane, thanks for joining us today.

WHARMBY: Thank you.

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