The secret lives of baby fish – Amy McDermott
Articles, Blog

The secret lives of baby fish – Amy McDermott

October 9, 2019

What you’re looking at
isn’t some weird x-ray. It’s actually a baby yellow tang surgeonfish
at two months old. And you thought your childhood
was awkward. But here is the same fish as an adult, a beautiful inhabitant of the
Indian and Pacific Oceans’ coral reefs and one of the most popular captive fish
for salt water aquariums. Of the 27,000 known fish species,
over a quarter live on coral reefs that make up less than 1%
of the Earth’s surface. But prior to settling down in this
diverse tropical environment, baby coral reef fish face the difficult
process of growing up on their own, undergoing drastic changes,
and the journey of a lifetime before they find that reef to call home. The life cycle for most of these fish begins when their parents spew
sperm and eggs into the water column. This can happen daily, seasonally,
or yearly depending on the species, generally following lunar or
seasonal tidal patterns. Left to their fate, the fertilized eggs
drift with the currents, and millions of baby larvae
hatch into the world. When they first emerge,
the larvae are tiny and vulnerable. Some don’t even have gills yet
and must absorb oxygen directly from the water
through their tissue-thin skin. They may float in the water column
anywhere from minutes to months, sometimes drifting thousands of miles
across vast oceans, far from the reefs where they were born. Along the way, they must
successfully avoid predators, obtain food, and ride the right currents
to find their way to a suitable adult habitat, which might as well be a needle
in vast haystack of ocean. So, how did they accomplish this feat? Until recently, marine biologists thought of
larval fish as largely passive drifters, dispersed by ocean currents
to distant locales. But in the last 20 years,
new research has suggested that larvae may not be
as helpless as they seem, and are capable of taking
their fate in their own fins to maximize their chances of survival. The larvae of many species are
unexpectedly strong swimmers, and can move vertically in the water column
to place themselves in different water masses and preferentially ride certain currents. These fish may be choosing the best routes
to their eventual homes. When searching for these homes, evidence suggests that larvae navigate
via a complex suite of sensory systems, detecting both sound and smell. Odor, in particular, allows larvae to
distinguish between different environments, even adjacent reefs, helping guide them toward their
preferred adult habitats. Many will head for far-flung locales
miles away from their birth place. But some will use smell
and other sensory cues to navigate back to the reefs
where they were born, even if they remain in the
larval stage for months. So, what happens when larvae
do find a suitable coral reef? Do they risk it all in one jump
from the water column, hoping to land in exactly
the right spot to settle down and metamorphose into adults? Not exactly. Instead, larvae appear to have
more of a bungee system. Larvae will drop down in the water column
to check out a reef below. If conditions aren’t right,
they can jump back up into higher water masses and ride on, chancing that the next reef
they find will be a better fit. But this is the point
where our knowledge ends. We don’t know the geographic movements
of individual larva for most species. Nor do we know which exact environmental
cues and behaviors they use to navigate to the reefs
they will call home. But we do know that these tiny trekkers are more than the fragile
and helpless creatures science once believed them to be. The secret lives of baby fish
remain largely mysterious to us, unknown adventures waiting to be told.


  • Reply Lim Leon August 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    1st comment? :/

  • Reply Big Chink Al August 11, 2014 at 3:17 pm

    Just gotta say, Ted-Ed teaches me something new every video.

  • Reply Tan tran thanh August 11, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    really fantastic

  • Reply Zangetsai August 11, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Thought I was having an acid flashback at 2:29

  • Reply ArmorKingEmir August 11, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    this turned in to useless channel. useless info , absolutely. keep wasting your time, im out

  • Reply Robin Ha August 11, 2014 at 4:27 pm


  • Reply Phil Boswell August 11, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Nice video, but it's very jarring every time the narrator says "larva" when she means "larvae": some might think it picky, but it's equivalent to saying "child" when you mean "children" and who would call that picky?

  • Reply Prashant Sharma August 11, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Grt vid

  • Reply Sat Ire August 11, 2014 at 8:57 pm

    God directs them. It's obvious.

  • Reply Chris August 12, 2014 at 3:02 am

    Not so secret anymore, heh heh heh

  • Reply Corner Universe August 12, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    Makes yah think how important it is to save the coral reefs, such diverse ecosystems, something has to be done.

  • Reply Wiavs9Luzomgo August 12, 2014 at 9:45 pm


  • Reply acid August 13, 2014 at 12:23 am

    Man, so many secrets… Are you sure you should be telling me all this, TED-Ed? I mean, aren't secrets supposed to stay secret?

  • Reply Samantha Grey August 13, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    She kinda sounds like Meredith from Grey's anatomy.

  • Reply Timothy Hagge August 14, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Ted-ed I turely don't mean to be rude but ur better at drawing animal then ppl then again so may I :3 plz plz plz never stop you help me learn a lot form you and plz find new ways to teach us thank you :3

  • Reply bad time August 16, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    The Secret life of walter mitt- i mean Yellow Tang Surgeonfish.

  • Reply Tra Tsubaki no mai August 22, 2014 at 4:18 am

    thanks for upload this video! it helps me a lot in improving english

  • Reply Ahmad Altamimi August 27, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    I translated it to Arabic …good topic

  • Reply jiawei duan March 25, 2016 at 11:46 pm


  • Reply Katherine Richardson October 31, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I thought they were called fry

  • Reply Tom H December 28, 2016 at 1:40 am

    I'm on a Ted-Ed binge watch and I'm having so much fun.

  • Reply Russell Bond February 25, 2017 at 1:56 am

    And I thought my parents were bad…

  • Reply Van WangYe March 8, 2017 at 1:46 am

    Theres no crucial facts thats not mentioned. Many species of reef fishes are smart to seek refuge in mangroves too. Making Mangroves crucially linked to coral reefs survival.
    Only when the fishes grew notiable size, they left their nursery home and venture into the coral reef.

  • Reply Steve jenkins May 2, 2017 at 12:47 am

    Nut lol

  • Reply Faid Alfarisi May 5, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Glad human born in perfect size and perfect skin instead of small size and transparent skin

  • Reply Papoy Minions July 1, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    BABY DORY??? 🙁

  • Reply Davis Hatler July 4, 2017 at 4:54 am

    0:52 sounds romantic

  • Reply Sammy Ingle July 10, 2017 at 12:29 am

    I wanna the secret lives of baby sea turtles

  • Reply Emma Chandler-Strong July 13, 2017 at 6:58 pm

    Petition to call baby fish "fishlings"?
    Seriously though, do they have a real name other than "larvae"?

  • Reply Ciel Phantomhive January 19, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    And you think your parents dont care just look at these fish

  • Reply Squirtle used flamethrower February 9, 2018 at 12:37 pm

    question: do fish still eat each other in reefs? are there still predators?

  • Reply JMoon May 12, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    Pff who cares about fiding nemo
    We have this!

  • Reply Hello sir September 13, 2018 at 1:22 am

    ”Why did they live, why did they die? No reason.”

  • Reply Arti Bharuka May 25, 2019 at 8:08 am

    Fate in their own fins!!👍

  • Reply Leslie Lizaga May 29, 2019 at 1:27 am


  • Reply Me Yes it's me June 25, 2019 at 12:47 am

    "And you think your childhood was awkward"

    You no need to come to me like that..

  • Reply manvitha S August 12, 2019 at 7:24 am

    Was this narrated robotically?

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