Scientists have discovered the first fully warm-blooded fish

Washington Post, By Chelsea Harvey, May 14

It’s one of the most basic biology facts we’re taught in school growing up: Birds and mammals are warm-blooded, while reptiles, amphibians and fish are cold-blooded. But new research is turning this well-known knowledge on its head with the discovery of the world’s first warm-blooded fish — the opah.

In a paper published today in Science, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) describe the unique mechanism that enables the opah, a deepwater predatory fish, to keep its body warm. The secret lies in a specially designed set of blood vessels in the fish’s gills, which allows the fish to circulate warm blood throughout its entire body.

Scientists already suspected the opah was special, says Heidi Dewar, a researcher at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and one of the paper’s authors. Most fish who live where the opah does — that is, hundreds of feet deep, in some of the ocean’s darkest and coldest places — are sluggish, thanks to the low temperatures. At these depths, even predatory fish tend to be slow-moving, waiting patiently for prey to come by rather than actively chasing it down. But the opah, which spends all its time in these deep places, has many features usually associated with a quick-moving, active predator, such as a large heart, lots of muscle and big eyes. These characteristics made the opah “a curiosity,” Dewar says.

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