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For Minnows, A Suicidal Survival Strategy

If a minnow's skin is damaged by an attacking pike, it releases a chemical that attracts more pike. Why would a minnow want to attract more trouble?

Minnows swimming at river bottom

Photo: Lebatihem (flickr)

Minnows like these in London use strange survival tactics that attract more predators when being attacked

Beneath the surface of a pond or stream it’s a fish-eat-fish world, and the tiny minnow is often lunch for larger fish such as pike.  You’d think a tasty minnow would try to remain inconspicuous, but this isn’t always the case.  If a minnow’s skin is damaged by an attacking pike, it releases a chemical that attracts more pike.  Why would a minnow that’s already being attacked want to attract more trouble?  Do injured minnows have some kind of crazy death wish?

This seemingly suicidal behavior is actually a clever survival strategy.  The minnow’s chemical has two distinct functions.  First, it warns other minnows about the danger.  Minnows travel in schools with close relatives, so this chemical alarm warns the others away from potentially dangerous waters.  Even if the original minnow is eaten, its brothers and sisters will live to reproduce.  From a genetic standpoint, this self sacrifice makes sense.

You might wonder about the chemical’s other function though–to attract more pike.  A minnow’s skin is most likely to be damaged in an attack from a relatively small pike.  Larger pike simply swallow their minnows whole.  Because of this, the alarm substance is usually released when a small pike is attacking.  This means that the chemical might well attract pike that are larger than the minnow’s current assailant.  Pike have no qualms about eating other pike, so if a big one sees a smaller pike chasing a tiny minnow, that big pike will go after the larger mouthful, allowing the minnow to escape.

It’s much like the end of Jurassic Park.  The humans were about to be eaten by evil velociraptors, when the noise of their struggle summoned a bigger predator:  Tyrannosaurus Rex.  T-rex ate the raptors, allowing the humans to escape.

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