Closeup of koi carps, with eyes and barbels clearly visible

The Senses of Fish: How They Perceive and Navigate Their Environment

In this article we’ll focus on fish senses, how they perceive the world through vision, smell, taste, and the lateral line system. At the end as a small bonus, I’ll discuss fish pain perception. Do fish feel pain or not? Furthermore, we’ll have a short look at the fish brain and its integral role in processing these sensory signals.


Fish Eye Anatomy and Adaptations

Fish eyes, although resembling ours in basic structure, have adaptations specific for underwater life. Their corneas are often more spherical (well, like the fish eye lens in cameras 🙂 ), helping in light refraction. Additionally, a reflective layer, known as the tapetum lucidum, enhances low-light vision by reflecting light back through the retina, giving photoreceptor cells (light-sensitive receptors in the eye) a second chance to detect it

Different Types of Vision

Depending on the adaptations to their habitat, fish can have different types of vision. Some fish have colour vision that helps them identify prey and recognize fellow fish. Colour vision relies on specialised cone cells.
Moreover, some species, like sticklebacks or cichlids have the ability to detect polarised light, invisible to humans. This allows them to interpret patterns that may help them in navigation and predator avoidance. Also, some fish species like zebrafish, have ultraviolet vision, and use it for e.g. detecting patterns on potential mates or tracking prey.

Seeing underwater is different than above it!

Yet, the aquatic environment alters the rules of light propagation. Water acts as a filter, absorbing different wavelengths to varying degrees. As sunlight filters through the water column, red light, for instance, dissipates faster, influencing the colors fish perceive. This refractive nature of water also leads to underwater distortion, something fish have adapted to by adjusting their vision based on distance.


Olfactory Anatomy of Fish

So yes, fish can smell. 🙂 Nares, commonly known as nostrils, channel water loaded with scents to olfactory bulbs, a pair of organs nestled in the head. These bulbs are the center of olfactory processing, forwarding information to the fish’s brain.

Importance of Smell in Surviva

The sense of smell is not just about identifying dinner, ensuring they secure vital nutrients for growth and energy. It’s also an essential tool for fish to survive, as fish can also detect the scent of predators, enabling them to flee danger in time. Moreover, smell aids in navigation, helping fish find their way to the best feeding spots or mating places.

Certain fish species stand out with extraordinary olfactory sense. Take the salmon, for instance. They can detect a single drop of water containing chemicals released by their home stream, even after years spent in the ocean. This ability guides them back to their exact place of birth for spawning. There is, however, still a discussion if smell is the only way that leads salmon “back home”. Another potential cue that is suggested, is the Earth’s magnetic field.


Gustatory System in Fish – Can fish taste?

Just like us, fish have taste buds and receptors that translate chemical signals into flavor. So fish can taste flavors! 🙂 These taste buds are often located in various regions of their mouths, but also outside of their mouth, like e.g. in catfish, that also have taste buds on their barbels.

Moreover, some fish species have taste preferences, while others adapt to changing feed availability and aren’t choosy.

Taste as a Water Quality Guard

Interestingly, taste isn’t only tied to nutrition; it’s a survival tool that helps fish assess their environment. Fish’s acute taste senses can detect subtle changes in water quality, indicating shifts in their surroundings. This is particularly crucial in the presence of toxins, where the ability to detect unpalatable or harmful substances prevents ingestion and potential harm.

Lateral Line System

The Lateral Line System

Stretching along the sides of a fish’s body, the lateral line system is a network of specialised sensory cells, or neuromasts. These neuromasts are housed in fluid-filled canals that run just beneath the skin’s surface. Some fish have a scale pattern overlying these canals, where one can see where the lateral line is.

Schooling fish synchronise their movements through lateral line signals, maintaining their positions in the formation. Additionally, the lateral line also plays a role in predator avoidance. Fish can detect the slight disturbances caused by lurking predators, allowing them to react quickly to avoid danger.


The neuromasts, so the lateral line sensory cells are sensitive to smallest water movements and pressure changes. They enable fish to perceive their surroundings in ways invisible to us. This is especially vital in the dimly lit underwater world where vision may fall short. Also even if a fish is blind, it is still able to follow the shoal.

Processing Signals

Basic Structure of Fish Brains

Fish brains, though differently built, than ours, also have distinct regions with specialised roles. The three main sections—forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain—work together seamlessly to process sensory cues.

Role of Each Brain Part in Sensory Processing

The forebrain, including the telencephalon handles complex tasks like decision-making and memory formation. It combines inputs from the senses—vision, smell, taste, and the lateral line system—to construct a holistic view of the fish’s environment.

The midbrain, including the optic tectum, is associated with vision, processes visual information and reflexive responses.
Below the optic tectum is also the hypothalamus, that’s responsible for stress regulation.

Meanwhile, the hindbrain regulates basic functions like respiration and coordinates motor skills.

Do Fish Feel Pain?

The short answer is yes. 🙂 But there are nuances.

To better answer the question if fish can feel pain, we need to look into how they may perceive it. While their nervous systems are less complex than ours, experts debate the extent to which fish can feel pain may be similar to what mammals experience. This brought quite some debate into ethics regarding fishing practices and aquaculture.

Nociceptors in Fish and Their Role

Nociceptors, specialised “pain” nerve endings, definitely exist in fish, and they respond to harmful stimuli. While these receptors can signal potential danger, the debate persists on whether this also translates to conscious pain perception or is it “just” a reflexive response (isn’t reaction to pain reflexive though?). This means that fish can feel that something isn’t right for them/ potentially dangerous, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they feel pain the same way we do.

Ethical Implications in Fishing and Aquaculture

The question of fish pain is not merely an academic pondering; it holds ethical weight in industries like fishing and aquaculture. If fish can experience pain, it prompts us to reconsider practices that may cause undue suffering. This awareness has sparked conversations about more humane methods of capture and harvest.

D. Recent Scientific Findings and Perspectives: Recent studies shed light on fish pain sensitivity, suggesting that they exhibit behaviors consistent with pain avoidance. Observations of altered behavior following injury or exposure to noxious stimuli fuel the discussion on their pain experience. However, perspectives on these findings vary, and the scientific community continues to explore the nuances.

If you would like to get a deeper view into fish pain perception, I recommend you to have a look at work of Prof. Sneddon, especially on goldfish and rainbow trout. Here you can also find a review on fish pain written by Prof. Sneddon.

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