What happens when fish get drunk?

It’s that time of year again when we get together with friends, family, and co-workers to celebrate the holidays. For many this means loading up on cookies, mistletoe, and presents. Invariably, someone—Uncle Frank or that guy in the mailroom that never talks—will have one too many eggnogs and everyone will notice. They might slur their speech or wobble around the room, but did you know that social interactions of intoxicated individuals is not only limited to humans? That’s right—fish get drunk, too!

Fish don’t drink, but they can get drunk. (Source: http://www.huevolucion.com)

Working with Zebrafish—a common fish used in lab studies—researchers at NYU exposed fish to various environments of EtOH, technical-speak for alcohol. (Don’t worry, the highest concentration was only 1% EtOH!) After getting the fish drunk, they then watched the behaviors of the fish to monitor swimming trajectory (i.e., an underwater sobriety test) and interactions with other non-drunk fishes.

Intoxication studies on fish use zebrafish, and common species for use in lab studies. (Source: en.wikipedia.org)

The researchers found that the moderately-drunk individuals swam faster in a group setting than they did when observed alone. They also found that the untreated fish (i.e., the sober fish) behaved differently in the presence of a drunk fish—namely, they swam faster without other noticeable changes in swimming patterns. In other words, the drunk fish became a leader and the sober fish followed! It’s also worth noting that at the highest concentrations—the most drunk fish—individuals tended to lag behind and were likely experiencing the sedative effects of alcohol. The study does not indicate whether any fish ordered Dominoes late in the evening.

If these people were fish, the lady in the red dress would be the drunkest (Source: blog.grubhub.com)
If these people were fish, the lady in the red dress would be the drunkest (Source: blog.grubhub.com)

Authors of this study have other interesting studies—namely one that looks at the group effect of alcohol on fish (spoiler alert: swimming dynamics get sloppy) and the influence of alcohol on zebrafish when a predator is present—which resulted in drunk fish being bolder and more aggressive. Sound familiar?

So next week at the office holiday party when “that lady from HR” starts to increase in volume and zip around the room after her 4th spiced rum, take a moment to consider the parallels between drunk fish and drunk people—and also take note of whether your co-workers quickly follow her lead!

Check out the full study here.

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