A zebrafish hopped up on ethanol got some firsthand experience with the expression “drink like a fish” when it was the star of an alcohol and sociality study out of New York University.
Researchers wanted to study how the presence of non-drinking zebrafish would impact the social behavior of one drunkard among them, a fish who was given four treatments of ethanol in varying doses, from none at all to, well, a lot. The zebrafish would soon find out what it’s like to be the the singular disorderly drunk found at every party ever thrown.
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The NYU team first found some unexpected effects related to locomotion in the fish (“don’t drink and swim” may be a worthy admonition for a human, but for a fish maybe a bit unnecessary).
Typically, a fish will swim faster when it’s moderately drunk, but then slow down the more sloshed it gets.
In this case, though, the drunk zebrafish conformed to the expected result when it was alone, but when it was placed in a tank with its non-inebriated peers there was a surprising result: The drunker the fish got, the faster it swam, practically doubling its normal speed.
Just as unexpectedly, when the single drunk fish swam faster, its teetotaling friends matched the pace, primarily at intermediate speeds (if the treated fish was hardly drunk at all, or super-snookered, the non-drinking fish seemed less inclined to play Speed Racer).
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What does it all mean? The study team theorized that the drunken zebrafish swam much faster than expected because the busy tank full of sober fish gave the tipsy swimmer a case of hyperactivity. Or, they suggested, perhaps the drunk fish moved at warp speed to indicate that it wanted to interact with its tank-mates.
Of key interest to the researchers overall was the drunk fish’s behavior and how it took a turn for the unexpected. It suggests to them that the stimulus provided to the drunk zebrafish by the non-treated ones — their presence in the tank — was able to change the way a drunk fish responds to alcohol.