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Fish Fins May Sense Touch Like Human Fingertips

First Posted: Feb 11, 2016 10:06 AM EST

Could fish fins be able to sense touch like human fingertips? That may just be the case, according to researchers. Scientists have found that some fish can use their pectoral fish to gather information about the physical environment, like we use our hands.

Located just behind the gills, the pectoral fins are a pair of distinctive appendages that correspond to forelimbs in four-legged animals. Usually involved in propulsion or balance during swimming, these fins have evolved dramatic functions in certain species. They allow flying fish to fly above the surface of waves, and they allow mudskippers to crawl. In this latest study, though, the researchers wanted to know if these fins could also feel.

In this latest study, the researchers focused on the pictus catfish, which is a small, bottom-dwelling species that's native to the muddy waters of the Amazon river. Aside from a hardened, serrated spine used for defense, the pectoral fins of these fish are fairly typical. However, these catfish don't appear to use their pectoral fins for locomotion.

The researchers found that neurons not only responded when contact was made, but they carried information about the degree of pressure and the motion of a brush being pushed across the fin. An analyses of cellular structures of the find revealed the presence of cells that closely resemble Merkel cells, which are associated with nerve endings in the skin of mammals and are essential for touch.

"Like us, fish are able to feel the environment around them with their fins. Touch sensation may allow fish to live in dim environments, using touch to navigate when vision is limited," said Melina Hale, one of the researchers, in a news release. "It raises a lot of exciting questions on how sensory cells shape the brain's perception of environmental features, and may provide insight into the evolution of sensation in vertebrates."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

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