The Challenges of Being Small

A zebrafish larvae catching its prey.

For juvenile fish, feeding is a challenge. Their small size — often less than 5 mm in length — makes hydrodynamically capturing prey much harder because of viscosity’s relatively larger effect on them. But size may not be the only factor in determining their success, as a new study shows.

Researchers studied feeding behaviors of two, equally-sized species’ larvae: zebrafish and guppies. The biggest difference between these two species is their developmental time prior to beginning to hunt on their own. Guppies develop five times longer than zebrafish larvae before they start feeding.

Both fish have the same hydrodynamic limitations to overcome. If you look closely at the first image, you’ll see fluid being pushed ahead of the fish as it swims. The researchers refer to this as a bow wave, and it effectively announces to any prey that the fish is approaching. To sneak up on prey, the fish has to be able to generate enough suction force to pull its food in from beyond the bow wave’s reach. The experiments showed that guppies were able to do this reliably, while zebrafish could not. The subsequent difference in their feeding success was stark: the guppies’ success rate was almost five times that of the zebrafish! (Image and research credit: T. Dial and G. Lauder, source; via G. Lauder)

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