Schools of Fish

Why do fish swim in schools? The reason is the same for flocks of birds, stampedes of buffalo, herds of elephants, etc. Animals have been displaying this behavior for millions of years, with many popular dinosaur theories pointing to the fact that many species that were lowest on the food chain, especially herbivores, exhibited group behaviors. First I want to highlight the difference between a ‘herd’ and a ‘pack’.

A pack is usually a group of carnivores, or predators, that realize kills would be much more efficient using numbers, than with a lone assailant. Cats exhibit this type of behavior, as they are mostly known as loners, who only group together when it is most beneficial for the hunt. Now that is not to say that animals can only exhibit pack behaviors when in groups. Lets take lionesses for example. The female lions usually hunt in foretold ‘packs’, but also exhibit ‘herd’ behavior when not in the hunt for food, mainly for protection. Stampedes of buffalo do not group together in order to successfully take down large prey, instead they group in huge numbers to form one large entity, like the old saying that five fingers can form a fist, one that would prove to have much more of an advantage against potential predators. As for fish, they group together for similar reasons, but use different tactics. Schools of fish, unlike stampedes of buffalo, do not usually fight back. Instead they use deception, with groups of hundreds and sometimes even thousands of members. Lets say you or I was a great white shark, and you are swimming through hundreds of potential meals, which for our sake, would be schools of hot sauce wings. Instead of tactically pursuing and maneuvering to hunt down one of the wings, your focus continually shifts to another identical wing swimming right behind you. While you are in the self-induced chicken fantasy land, the wings are swimming to an area where your two ton body will not fit.

Protection, however, is not the only reason that animals group together, whether carnivore or herbivore. Another term that I like to call ‘collective sustainability’, is a concept that has only been recently researched, studied, and emphasized. It involves the pursuit of goals that are common to a group of animals, or more broadly a species, which invoke a sometimes subconscious tendency of the animals to work together to achieve a goal for the good of the group, or the survival of its species. Though it may not seem so, modern humans also still exhibit these tendencies. Lets think of it in terms of military warfare, just so you guys aren’t falling asleep while reading this article. The US deploys 500,000 troops to the beach of Normandy. Why so many? Why can’t we send just one soldier to win the war for us? Millions of years ago lesser organisms would have done so, but at our stage of the game we realize our limitations, and that we have to take losses as well as wins. As for fish, they are the military, and Normandy is an enormous reef housing vital food and nutrients needed for survival. The chances that one fish by itself will survive are one in a hundred, but with a thousand fish in the school, those odds seem pretty good.

In the end, we can only dicepher the behaviors of animals from the outside, using our own experience and understanding. The thoughts and tendencies of another species, especially aquatic, groomed by billions of years of evolution, could be beyond anything we could imagine. But it is the thrill of the search that captures our intellect and our imaginations.