50 years ago, chemical pollutants were linked to odd animal behavior

Excerpt from the September 18, 1971 issue of Science News

sewage runoff pours out of a drainpipe

Chemical pollutants can disrupt aquatic creatures’ delicate sense of smell, scientists have found. A chemical common in sewage runoff (shown) has been shown to disrupt some fishes’ ability to form schools.

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cover of the September 18, 1971 issue of Science News

Sea life’s chemical senses
Science News, September 18, 1971

For fish and other underwater life, a sensitivity to chemicals plays the same role as the sense of smell does for land animals.… [Researchers] have been studying the subtle ways this delicate fish-communication system can be disrupted by pollutants…. One study examined the effects of kerosene pollution on the behavior of lobsters…. The experiments demonstrate that chemical communication interference takes place at extremely low dilutions.


Chemical pollution — from sewage and agricultural runoff to pharmaceutical waste — muddles aquatic animals’ senses with potentially dire effects, decades of research has shown. A chemical used to treat sewage seems to limit some fish species’ abilities to form schools, making the fish vulnerable to predators (SN: 10/27/07, p. 262). Drug-tainted waters can have a variety of effects on fish, including suppressing their appetites (SN: 12/20/08, p. 15). A plastic chemical also appears to confuse senses: Its scent can lure sea turtles into eating plastic debris (SN: 3/28/20, p. 14).

Aina Abell is the editorial assistant at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Southern California.

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