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Fish must orient in three dimensions as they navigate through space, but it is unknown whether they are assisted by a sense of depth. In principle, depth can be estimated directly from hydrostatic pressure, but although teleost fish are exquisitely sensitive to changes in pressure, they appear unable to measure absolute pressure. Teleosts sense changes in pressure via changes in the volume of their gas-filled swim-bladder, but because the amount of gas it contains is varied to regulate buoyancy, this cannot act as a long-term steady reference for inferring absolute pressure. In consequence, it is generally thought that teleosts are unable to sense depth using hydrostatic pressure. Here, we overturn this received wisdom by showing from a theoretical physical perspective that absolute depth could be estimated during fast, steady vertical displacements by combining a measurement of vertical speed with a measurement of the fractional rate of change of swim-bladder volume. This mechanism works even if the amount of gas in the swim-bladder varies, provided that this variation occurs over much longer time scales than changes in volume during displacements. There is therefore no a priori physical justification for assuming that teleost fish cannot sense absolute depth by using hydrostatic pressure cues.

Original publication




Journal article


J R Soc Interface

Publication Date





1379 - 1382


Air Sacs, Animals, Fishes, Hydrostatic Pressure, Organ Size, Space Perception