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Smells Like Home: For Fish, Reefs Are Unique

An NPR report on BU Marine Program’s newest find

Jelle Atema, a CAS professor of biology, studied how reef fish use ocean smells.

There’s no place like home, at least to coral reef fish. Reef fish larvae that have been dragged from their birthplace by tides can find their way home by hitching a ride on ocean currents — sometimes for more than 100 miles — choosing the correct current based on its odor. That’s according to a new study by Jelle Atema, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of biology in the Boston University Marine Program, and colleagues studying fish populations in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, whose work appears in the January 2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They placed cardinal fish larvae in the middle of two water streams, one of which was from their home reef. Almost all the larvae choose the stream that smelled like home. The findings may help in the management of coral reefs and could have important implications for marine environments in general.

Click here to listen to an interview with Atema on NPR’s All Things Considered, which aired on January 11.