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Science Behind the Fiction: Will we ever be able to talk to fish like Aquaman?

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Dec 26, 2018, 12:30 PM EST

Taking a serious look at the history of Aquaman is like taking a master class in what it is to be an underdog. The character was first introduced in More Fun Comics #73 in 1941 and has fought an uphill battle for respect ever since.

Despite the indisputable fact that our planet is mostly covered by large oceans, Aquaman was long considered a joke. For most of the character's existence, he's been heralded as an overpowered superhero whose powers stop just before the line of usefulness: the shoreline. This is, perhaps, evidence of self-centeredness on the part of the readers. Humanity is, after all, a land-based species and we've collectively decided that whatever happens outside of our domain is of little import.

It wasn't until recently that the character was reshaped within the pages of comic books and readers began to see Aquaman for who he truly is. Endowed with the full power of the seas, Arthur Curry grew into his abilities and began to command the respect he was always owed. At the same time, the DC Extended Universe began to take shape onscreen and Jason Momoa was cast as the keeper of the deep, imbuing the character with both the brawn and charm required to make viewers take notice.

While this means that he might finally be given the due he deserves, it also means he must endure hard scrutiny. It is with that in mind that we return to the criticism that has shackled the character from his earliest days and ask the question: How the hell does he talk to fish?


In the hierarchy of animalia, fish are pretty near the bottom — in our minds, at least. Humans are infamous for anthropomorphizing non-human animals and lending more human traits toward those most similar to us, while withholding those same traits toward the "lesser" creatures. It's why we are so willing to extend empathy to dolphins, elephants, and great apes while we make commodities of other animals. Along the spectrum of animals, fish are second only to bugs when we consider animals which might have feelings and inner lives.

Recent research, however, suggests we might be mistaken about our scaly, finned friends.

It seems that fish might have more complex lives than we originally imagined. Beneath the seas, there are incredible populations of fish which communicate in myriad ways.

In addition to electrical signals and messages coded in color patterns, fishes seemingly communicate via auditory signals intentionally created via specialized organs. And that's not all. Not only do fish talk, but evidence also suggests they have regional dialects similar to the unique languages of human beings.

By utilizing the swim bladder, some species of fish are able to create a series of sounds which communicate the threat of predators, potential prey, and the desire to mate.

Communication among fish, however, is complex. Many species have the ability to hear and interpret sound but don't have the physiological hardware to speak.

"Goldfish have excellent hearing, but excellent hearing doesn't associate with vocalization. They don't make any sound whatsoever," Shahriman Ghazali, a marine scientist at the University of Auckland, said.


Understanding fish the way Aquaman does is likely outside of our current capability. But we might soon be able to understand some of our aquatic brethren.

The attempt to understand the communication of, say, dolphins makes sense, given that they are aquatic mammals, more similar to humans than other sea-faring species.

For example, it's known that dolphins have a complex form of communication including calls relating to individual names. There is good evidence that dolphins are highly intelligent and have the capacity for complex communication. And while attempts at interpreting dolphin communication have failed up to this point, there is some hope with the utilization of artificial intelligence.

One Swedish startup is pinning its hopes on deciphering dolphin language using software that has successfully decoded 40 human languages. It's possible that computers might be able to accomplish what humans have been unable to do.

When listing Aquaman's abilities, his communication with aquatic species might rank somewhere near the bottom, beneath his incredible strength and command of the seas themselves. But communication with all of the ocean's species is, in fact, the most complex and unexplainable of his powers. His communication skills would have to span beyond our most advanced artificial intelligences.

We are just now hoping to crack the most similar of our aquatic relatives.

Aquaman can, with little effort, communicate with untold species whose languages include not just auditory signals, but also changes in skin tone. In order to effectively communicate with all of the ocean's sentient species, he would have to understand languages entirely alien to humanity in more ways than we can likely imagine.

While Jason Momoa has succeeded in humanizing Arthur Curry — such that we can finally appreciate a character almost a century in waiting — what he's truly accomplished is proving that Aquaman can offer us more in terms of knowledge than we could ever have hoped.

The Aquaman's crusade to prevent a war between worlds should only be the first stop along the road of knowledge. Recognizing the hidden lives of our aquatic companions might rewrite the largest ecosystem on our planet, and that's the true legacy that Aquaman can offer us.

Aquaman is now in theaters.