Bioluminescent flashes drive nighttime schooling behavior and synchronized swimming dynamics in flashlight fish
Schooling fishes, like flocking birds and swarming insects, display remarkable behavioral coordination. While over 25% of fish species exhibit schooling behavior, nighttime schooling has rarely been observed or reported. This is due to vision being the primary modality for schooling, which is corroborated by the fact that most fish schools disperse at critically low light levels. Here we report on a large aggregation of the bioluminescent flashlight fish Anomalops katoptron that exhibited nighttime schooling behavior during multiple moon phases, including the new moon. Data were recorded with a suite of low-light imaging devices, including a high-speed, high-resolution scientific complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (sCMOS) camera. Image analysis revealed nighttime schooling using synchronized bioluminescent flashing displays, and demonstrated that school motion synchrony exhibits correlation with relative swim speed. A computer model of flashlight fish schooling behavior shows that only a small percentage of individuals need to exhibit bioluminescence in order for school cohesion to be maintained. Flashlight fish schooling is unique among fishes, in that bioluminescence enables schooling in conditions of no ambient light. In addition, some members can still partake in the school while not actively exhibiting their bioluminescence. Image analysis of our field data and model demonstrate that if a small percentage of fish become motivated to change direction, the rest of the school follows. The use of bioluminescence by flashlight fish to enable schooling in shallow water adds an additional ecological application to bioluminescence and suggests that schooling behavior in mesopelagic bioluminescent fishes may be also mediated by luminescent displays.