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Soniferous Fishes of Massachusetts

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Abstract and Figures

Since the seminal work of Fish and Mowbray (1970), little advancement has been made towards the study of soniferous fishes from the marine waters of the Northeastern United States. A review of the literature suggests at least 51 fishes are vocal in New England waters (Table 1), although many of these species are uncommon stragglers to these waters. Spontaneous sound production is known from only about half of these species. However, laboratory studies are often hampered by the difficulty of maintaining healthy specimens, and the difficulty of inducing natural behaviors such as spawning under confinement. This is further complicated by the fact that many fish are primarily vocal during the spawning season, and may not vocalize until maturity, and because vocal behavior is usually limited to males (e.g., haddock and weakfish).The objectives of this study were to conduct a pilot field survey of soniferous fishes in Massachusetts’s waters to determine what species are vocal and examine temporal patterns in vocal behavior. However, because of the unexpected finding of widespread calls of the striped cusk-eel on Cape Cod, this paper will focus on this enigmatic species.
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Soniferous Fishes of Massachusetts
Rodney Rountree1,Francis Juanes2,and Joseph E. Blue3
1School for Marine Science and Technology,UMASS Dartmouth, 706 Rodney French Blvd., New
Bedford,MA 02744-1221 rrountree@UMassD.Edu
2Department of Natural Resources Conservation, University of Massachusetts,Amherst, MA 01003
3President, Leviathan Legacy, Inc., 3313 Northglen Drive,Orlando, FL 32806
Since the seminal work of Fish and Mowbray (1970),little advancement has been made towards the
study of soniferous fishes from the marine waters of the Northeastern United States. A review of the
literature suggests at least 51 fishes are vocal in New England waters (Table 1), although many of
these species are uncommon stragglers to these waters. Spontaneous sound production is known
from only about half of these species. However,laboratory studies are often hampered by the diffi-
culty of maintaining healthy specimens, and the difficulty of inducing natural behaviors such as
spawning under confinement. This is further complicated by the fact that many fish are primarily
vocal during the spawning season, and may not vocalize until maturity, and because vocal behavior
is usually limited to males (e.g., haddock and weakfish). The objectives of this study were to conduct
a pilot field survey of soniferous fishes in Massachusetts’s waters to determine what species are
vocal and examine temporal patterns in vocal behavior. However,because of the unexpected find-
ing of widespread calls of the striped cusk-eel on Cape Cod,this paper will focus on this enigmatic
Table 1(below).Partial list of species known to be capable of sound production based on field and/or laboratory
studies, and which occur at least seasonally in New England (Long Island to Maine) estuarine and shelf waters (Fish
et al. 1952,Fish and Mowbray 1970, Hawkins and Rasmussen 1978,Tavolga 1980, Mann et al.1997). *Sound produc-
tion capability assumed based on the presence of anatomical structures usually associated with vocalization.(All
species were not necessarily subjected to both mechanical and electrical stimulation in the Fish et al.1952 and Fish
and Mowbray 1970 studies).
Scientific name Common name Sounds produced spontaneous
ly (S) or under either mechanical
(M) or electrical (E) stimulation
Anguillidae American eel Weak: M,E and S
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Anguilla rostrata American eel Weak: M,E and S
Clupeidae American eel Weak: M,E and S
Brevoortia tyrannus Atlantic menhaden Weak: M
Clupea harengus Atlantic herring Weak: M, E
Opisthonema oglinum Atlantic thread herring Weak: M,E
*Brosme brosme Cusk ?
Gadus morhua Atlantic cod Strong: M, S
Melanogrammus aeglefinus Haddock Strong: S
Merluccius bilinearis Silver hake Weak: M
Pollachius virens Pollock Weak: M
Urophycis chuss Red hake Weak: E
Urophycis regia Spotted hake Weak: E
*Lepophidium profundorum Fawn cusk-eel ?
Ophidion marginatum Striped cusk-eel Strong: S
Opsanus tau Oyster toadfish Strong: S
Dactylopterus volitans Flying gurnard Strong: M
Prionotus carolinus Northern searobin Strong: M,S
Prionotus evolans Striped searobin Strong: S
Myoxocephalus aenaeus Grubby Weak: M,E
Myoxocephalus Longhorn sculpin Strong:M,S
Morone saxatilis Striped bass Moderate:M,E
Centropristis striata Black sea bass Weak:M,E
Pomatomus saltatrix Bluefish Weak: M,E
Alectis ciliaris African pompano Strong: M
Caranx crysos Blue runner Moderate: M,S
Caranx hippos Crevalle jack Strong: M,S
Caranx latus Horse-eye jack Strong: M,E,S
Caranx ruber Bar jack Strong: M,S
Chloroscombrus chrysurus Atlantic bumper Moderate: M,E
Selene setapinnis Atlantic moonfish Strong: M
Selene vomer Lookdown Strong: M
Seriola dumerili Greater amberjack Moderate: S
Ocyurus chrysurus Yellowtail snapper Weak: M,E,S
Lutjanus griseus Gray snapper Weak M,E
Orthopristis chrysoptera Pigfish Strong:M,S
Stenotomus chrysops Scup Weak: M
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Bairdiella chrysoura Silver perch Strong:M,S
Cynoscion nebulosus Spotted seatrout ?
Cynoscion regalis Weakfish Strong: M,S
Leiostomus xanthurus Spot Moderate: M,E,S
Menticirrhus saxatilis Northern kingfish Weak: M
Micropogon undulatus Atlantic croaker Strong:M,S
Pogonias cromis Black drum Strong: M,S
Tautoga onitis Tautog Moderate: E,S
Tautogolabrus adspersus Cunner Weak: E
Aluterus schoepfi Orange filefish Moderate: M,E,S
Balistes capriscus Gray triggerfish Moderate: M,E,S
Monacanthus hispidus Planehead filefish Moderate: M,E
Lactophrys quadricornis Scrawled cowfish Moderate: M
Chilomycterus schoepfi Striped burrfish Moderate: M,E
Sphoeroides maculatus Northern puffer Moderate: M
Mola mola Ocean sunfish Strong: M
Recordings of fish sounds were made at 12 different sites across Cape Cod at least once between
June and October 2001. However,the primary sampling location was the Cotuit town landing
which was sampled on 18 different dates, including 5 dates on which monitoring was conducted
over the diel cycle. Except for the diel studies, most sampling was conducted around sunset, usually
beginning 1 to 2 hours before sunset and continuing for 2 to 3 hours after sunset. To obtain infor-
mation on the daily pattern of fish calls, diel studies were conducted on five different dates at Cotuit
town landing. For these studies, sounds were recorded approximately from 1300-1400, 1900-2300,
0100-0200, and 0400-0600,corresponding to afternoon, sunset, night,and sunrise periods, respec-
tively. Low cost hydrophones (Arretec, PB 3098 Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK2 2AD, United Kingdom)
were deployed from docks, piers, jetties and small boats and recorded to a hi-fi VCR. Occasionally,
recordings were made to a Sony hand-held tape recorder (model TCM-929). In addition, whenever
possible, video recordings were made simultaneously to the VCR using a hand-deployed underwa-
ter video camera equipped with infrared lights (models made by Vista Cam,9911 Goodhue St. NE,
Blaine MN 55449, and Aqua vu, Nature Vision Inc., 213 NW 4th St.,Brainerd, MN 56401). Sounds were
captured to a PC while playing back from a VCR using Cool Edit 2000 (made by Syntrillium Software
Corporation). Some spectral analyses were also conducted using Signal for Windows (Engineering
Design, 43 Newton St, Belmont,MA 02478). To quantify call frequency, 1-4 hour sound samples were
divided into 10-minute segments and a randomly selected 2 minute sound clip was obtained from
each. Calls for toadfish, striped cusk-eel and searobins were identified and counted. Reference
sound clips of unknown calls were made and used to make counts of unknown sounds by type
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Over 53 VHS and 12 cassette tapes comprising over 160 hours of recordings were collected. Calls of
striped cusk-eels, Ophidion marginatum,oyster toadfish, Opsanus tau,and striped searobin, Prionotus
evolans,dominated the observations. Several unidentified calls were also common.We are continu-
ing our efforts to identify these calls. In addition, various sources of natural and man-made noise
were also recorded including: outboard boats,barges, jet-skies, dock noises,fishing noises, depth-
finders, and gas release from sediments. Based on the occurrence of vocal choruses, we found sun-
set spawning aggregations of the striped cusk-eels at eight of 12 locations sampled across the
length of Cape Cod,including two sites (Barnstable Harbor and Provincetown Harbor) on the north
shore. Cusk-eels were recorded from the first sampling date (June 11) through the end of August,
but abruptly stopped by early September. Oyster toadfish were also already calling at the start of
the field season, but sunset choruses had ceased by mid-July. Striped searobin calls were not associ-
ated with sunset, but occurred throughout the night. Searobin calls were most frequent in August
and September but were still present in October. The cusk-eel sounds recorded in MA are nearly
identical to striped cusk-eel sounds recorded by the first author under laboratory conditions in New
Jersey (Mann et al.1997), and more recent sounds recorded in the field and attributed to stripe cusk-
eels in Narragansett Bay (Perkins 2002) and North Carolina (Sprague and Luczkovich 2001). Our
attribution of these sounds to the striped cusk-eel is further validated by the capture of a 170 mm
TL specimen while recording sounds in Cotuit, MA in July 2001, and by subsequent sightings of a
larger individual later that same month. Cusk-eels can sometimes be observed in the shallows at
night with the aid of a spot light (Rountree, pers. Observ.). In Figure 1,chatters vary in relative ampli-
tude and range form 8 to 16 pulses and call times of 275 msec to 730 msec. The dominant frequen-
cy was 1098-1866 Hz (compared to the toadfish call at the beginning of the sequence at 171-585
Hz). A sample call recorded from Provincetown,MA on August 23, 2001 is shown in Figure 2. This
call is considerably longer (31 pulses, 1,715 msec) than those in Figure 1, but is still well within the
range characteristic of the species (Mann et al.1997, Sprague and Luczkovich 2001). A single repre-
sentative pulse has most energy between 914 and 1524 Hz (Fig.2).
Striped cusk-eel calls can be heard sporadically throughout the day, but calls clearly become more
frequent at sunset (Fig.3). Peak number of calls occurred between 20 to 60 minutes after sunset,
and declined to near zero within two hours. In contrast, the oyster toadfish calls more frequently
during the day,but also exhibits a strong increase in activity associated with sunset (Figure 4).
Although data are more limited, peak activity occur 1-2 hours after sunset, with more gradual
declines through the night compared to the striped cusk-eel.
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It is significant that the striped cusk-eel was the most frequently heard and widely distributed
species encountered during this study as it has previously been thought to occur from Block Island
south to Florida, with only rare stragglers occurring as far north as Cape Cod (Collette and Klein-
MacPhee 2002), despite extensive faunal surveys in the region over several decades.This finding
nicely demonstrates the usefulness of passive acoustics as a supplement to traditional survey meth-
ods, particularly for species difficult to sample in other ways. The seasonal and daily pattern of
striped cusk-eel vocal activity agrees with published laboratory findings (Mann et al.1997, Sprague
and Luczkovich 2001). Striped cusk-eels were already chorusing by mid-June when sampling
began, but had stopped by mid-September in good agreement with previous studies. Call frequen-
cy increases rapidly at sunset developing into a loud chorus that lasts from 1 to 2 hours (Fig. 3).
Captive cusk-eels have been observed to chorus after sunset as part of courtship and spawning
behavior (Mann et al.1997, Rountree and Bowers-Altman 2002). We believe that our observations
suggest widespread spawning of striped cusk-eels within estuaries of both the north and south
shores of Cape Cod. The species’ cryptic nocturnal behavior,and habit of remaining burrowed dur-
ing the day likely account for the failure of previous researchers using conventional sampling gears
(i.e., trawls and seine sampling mostly limited to daylight hours) to recognize its importance to the
region. At this time the northern range of the striped cusk-eel must be reconsidered. How much
farther up the cost the species extends is unknown. It is notable that Geoghegan et al. (1998)
recorded a single adult striped cusk-eel at Seabrook, New Hampshire and argued that it might rep-
resent a small local population. Therefore,we suspect that reproducing populations of this species
may occur at least to New Hampshire waters. However,the scarcity of ophidiid eggs in ichthyoplank-
ton surveys of the region is puzzling (e.g., Fahay 1992) and future studies on the distribution and
ecology of this cryptic species are needed. Boat sounds were problematic during the day,some-
times occurring during 50-99% of the sound sample clips. During these times, sounds of fishes
could not be heard above the boat’s noise. Boat noise was rare during the evening hours. The
impact of boat-associated noise on the behavior of fishes is poorly known, but it had a strong
impact on our ability to record day-time fish sounds. It is hoped that the newly available archive of
fish sounds originally published by Fish and Mowbray (1970) and recently repackaged by the
University of Rhode Island (Rountree et al.2002) will aid in the identification of the unknown calls
recorded on Cape Cod. In summary this study has demonstrated the usefulness of even low-cost
passive acoustics technology as a tool to survey estuarine and marine fishes. Information on the
temporal and spatial patterns of fish vocal behavior can be used to gain insight into temporal and
spatial patterns in habitat use patterns by vocal species. In particular,identification of spawning
habitats through passive acoustics surveys is promising.
Megan Hendry-Brogan and Katie Anderson are thanked for diligent work in both the field and labo-
ratory to collect and process fish sound data. This project received major funding from the
Northeast and Great Lakes National Undersea Research Center,which also provided extensive logis-
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Proceedings from the International Workshop on the Applications of Passive Acoustics to Fisheries
tical support. The Woods Hole Sea Grant College Program also provided supporting funds.
The Sounds Conservancy,Quebec-Labrador Foundation/Atlantic Center for the Environment provid-
ed a stipend for Megan’s fieldwork.
Literature Cited
Collette, B.B., and G. Klein-MacPhee. (eds.). 2002.Bigelow and Schroeder’s Fishes of the Gulf of Maine.
3rd Edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 748 p.
Fahay, M.P. 1992. Development and distribution of cusk eel eggs and larvae in the middle Atlantic
Bight with a description of Ophidion robinsi n.sp. (Teleostei:Ophidiidae). Copeia 1992(3):799-819.
Fish, M.P., A.S.Kelsey,Jr.,and W.H. Mowbray. 1952. Studies on the production of underwater sound by
North Atlantic coastal fishes. J.Mar.Res. 11:180-193.
Fish, M.P., and W.H. Mowbray. 1970. Sounds of Western North Atlantic fishes. Johns Hopkins Press,
Baltimore, MD. 205 p.
Geoghegan, P., J.N.Strube, and R. A.Sher. 1998.The first occurrence of the striped cusk eel, Ophidion
marginatum (Dekay), in the Gulf of Mexico. Northeastern Naturalist 5(4):363-366.
Hawkins, A.D. 1986.Underwater sound and fish behaviour.pp.114-151. In:The Behaviour of Teleost
Fishes. (ed.T.J. Pitcher). Groom-Hellm. London.
Hawkins, A.D., and K.J.Rasmussen. 1978. The calls of gadoid fish.J. Mar. Biol. Ass.U.K. 58:891-911.
Mann, D.A., J.Bowers-Altman, and R.A. Rountree.1997. Sounds produced by the striped cusk-eel
Ophidion marginatum (Ophidiidae) during courtship and spawning. Copeia 1997(3):610-612.
Perkins, P.J. 2002. Drumming and chattering sounds recorded underwater in Rhode Island.
Northeastern Naturalist 8(3):359-370.
Rountree, R.A. and J.Bowers-Altman. 2002. Soniferous behavior of the striped cusk-eel,Ophidion
marginatum.Bioacoustics 12(2/3):240-242.
Rountree, R.A., P.J. Perkins, R.D.Kenney, and K.R. Hinga. 2002.Sounds of Western North Atlantic Fishes:
Data rescue. Bioacoustics 12(2/3):242-244.
Sprague,M.W.and J. J. Luczkovich. 2001.Do striped cusk eels, Ophidion marginatum (Ophidiidae) pro-
duce the ‘chatter’sound attributed to weakfish,Cynoscion regalis (Sciaenidae)? Copeia 2001 (3): 854-859.
Tavolga, W.N. 1980.Hearing and sound production in fishes in relation to fisheries management.
P.102-123, In: Bardach, J.E., J.J. Magnuson,R.C. May, and J.M. Reinhart (eds.).Fish Behavior and its use
in the capture and culture of fishes. ICLARM Conference Proceedings 5, 512 p. International Center
for Living Aquatic Resources Management, Manila, Philippines.
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Illustrations and Diagrams
Ca l
Ca ll 1
Call 2
Ca ll 3
Call 4
Ca ll 5
Call 6
Figure 1. Representative sample of cusk-eel calls recorded in Cotuit,MA on June 20th 2001.The lower panel shows a
string of six separate cusk-eel calls,likely from six different individuals. The first call overlaps with that of a toadfish.
The upper left figures show the waveform and spectrogram for call 3. The power spectrum of call 3 is shown in the
upper right panel.
Figure 2. Single chatter attributed to the striped cusk-eel, Ophidion marginatum,recorded from Provincetown, MA on
23 August 2001. The lower panel shows the energy spectrum for the entire call,while the upper panels show the
waveform, energy spectrum and power spectrum of a single pulse.
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Daily Patter n of Cusk-eel C alls
12:00 PM 2:24 PM 4: 48 PM 7:1 2 PM 9 :3 6 P M 12:00 AM 2 :24 AM 4: 48 AM 7:12 AM 9 :36 A M
Ti me
Calls (Number/2min)
June July Sunset
Daily Pattern o f Oyster Toa dfish Calls
12:00 PM 2: 24 PM 4:48 PM 7 :12 PM 9 :36 PM 12 :00 AM 2:2 4 AM 4 :4 8 A M 7: 12 AM
Ti me
Calls (Number/2min)
Sunset Toadfish
Figure 3. Daily pattern of striped cusk-eel, Ophidion marginatum,calls collected on two dates (20-21 June and 2-3 July, 2001).
All calls heard within 2 minutes sound clips were counted. Sample clips were taken randomly from within 10-minute sample
bins. The vertical arrow marks the time of sunset as obtained from a hand-held GPS.
Figure 4. Daily pattern of oyster toadfish, Opsanus tau,call on June 20-21, 2001.
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Full-text available
We conducted a preliminary study of the reproductive behaviour and soniferous activity of the striped cusk-eel, Ophidion marginatum. Three female (225-263 mm TL) and six male (160-193 mm TL) cusk-eels were held in a flow-through tank under ambient conditions from 22 July - 22 September 1989. Cusk-eels remained burrowed during the day and emerged at sunset at the onset of courtship and spawning behaviour. All spawning was completed within 2-h after sunset. Eggs were encased in a clear gelatinous mass that gradually expanded until breaking up after about 24 hours. Eggs hatched in 36 hours. The male cusk-eels produced croaking sounds before and during courtship and spawning. Calling was often initiated while cusk-eels were still partially or entirely burrowed. Sounds consisted of 1-27 pulses between 500 and 1800 Hz. These sounds have previously been described as "chatter" from field recordings and were mistakenly attributed to the weakfish, Cynoscion regalis. Field recordings of cusk-eel choruses were made during August and September 2000. Calling began just before sunset and subsided within 2-h after sunset in agreement with our laboratory observations. Also see
Full-text available
Weakfish Cynoscion regalis and striped cusk-eels Ophidion marginatum both produce sounds, but there has been confusion in the literature on a particular sound, the “chatter.” It has been stated that this sound is produced by weakfish using their pharyngeal teeth. Striped cusk-eels make a similar sound (but not identified in the literature as a chatter) using sonic muscles associated with the swim bladder and vertebral components. The striped cusk-eel identifications were based on captive fish sound recordings, whereas the weakfish identifications were based on recordings made in situ where weakfish were visually observed but other sound-producing organisms could have been present. Based on new signal analysis of striped cusk-eel sounds made in captivity, we identify that species as the source of the chatter sound in our field recordings. The dominant frequency of the sounds increased while the pulse period decreased over the temperature range 18.0–27.5 C. The acoustic characteristics presented here will aid researchers in their identification of these sounds.
Full-text available
There is increasing interest in the potential of passive acoustics as a tool to study temporal and spatial distribution patterns, habitat use, and spawning, feeding, and predator avoidance behaviors of fishes. However, one of the primary limitations to more widespread use of passive acoustics in studies of fish ecology is the lack of well documented, and readily available, sound references. This has led to our efforts to recover and make available a digital copy of tapes of fish sounds that originally accompanied the landmark book "Sounds of Western North Atlantic Fishes" by Marie Fish and William Mowbray. They examined over 220 species from 59 families, and found biological sounds from 153 species from 36 families. The creation and distribution of a CD of fish sounds is the first step in a larger effort to rescue over 3 decades of sounds recorded at the Narragansett Marine Laboratory (Now the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island), as well as other historical data, and establish a National Archive of Fish Sounds at Cornell University. In this presentation we provide audio samples of fish sounds from the CD and present a summary of ongoing efforts to create the National Archive. For more information also see: Also refer to the raw excel file containing detailed inventory data in the supplementary resources associated with this publication
The Ophidiidae was the seventh most abundant family represented in ichthyo-plankton collections in the Middle Atlantic Bight from 1977 through 1987. Seven distinct larvae occurred: most abundant were Lepophidium profundorum, Ophidion marginatum and Ophidion robinsi n. sp., but O. selenops, O. holbrooki, O. welshi and Otophidium omostigmum were also collected. Examination of ontogenetic development of the three most abundant species and congeners in the Gulf of Mexico revealed differences between Lepophidium and Ophidion. In Lepophidium, vertebrae ossify from anterior to posterior, pectoral-fin rays form early, and cartilaginous epurals appear in larvae. In Ophidion, vertebrae form from both ends toward the middle, pectoral-fin rays form late, and there are no epurals. In both genera, the extreme anterior position of the pelvic-fin rays, and swim-bladder structures associated with sound production develop in stages older than pelagic larvae. Lepophidium profundorum larvae were primarily distributed over the outer half of the continental shelf, as far north as the southern flank of Georges Bank during summer. In the laboratory, O. marginatum spawned nightly for 2 mo, each female releasing a single mucilaginous sac containing a small batch of eggs. Larvae were distributed nearshore from Block Island Sound to Cape Hatteras during the summer. Larvae of O. robinsi, recognized by low numbers of meristic characters and distinct pigment and body proportions, occurred during spring and summer, and were common over midshelf depths between Cape Hatteras and the New York Bight. Meristic characters separate O. robinsi n. sp. from two other prominently spotted ophidiines, O. grayi and Otophidium omostigmum.
A striped cusk eel, Ophidion marginatum (Dekay) was captured in an impingement sample at Seabrook Station, in Seabrook NH, on 2 April 1997. This is the first record of a striped cusk eel in the Gulf of Maine and is a northern record for this species. The capture of this fish in New Hampshire waters is unusual because it occurred in April, outside of the season when southern fishes are typically found in New England waters.
It has long been known that sounds are important to fish. Isaac Walton advised anglers ‘to be patient and forbear swearing, lest they be heard’. A wide range of species, including many that are commercially valuable, emit sounds as part of their social behaviour (Tavolga 1976), and several species have been shown to be acutely sensitive to underwater sounds. However, before we consider the acoustical behaviour of fish in more detail, we need to understand what sound is, how sounds are created, and how they are transmitted through water.
Male weakfish, Cynoscion regalis, produce drumming sounds with sonic muscles that vibrate the swim bladder, and a second sound dubbed “chatter,” circumstantially linked to weakfish, is likely produced by cusk-eels (family Ophidiidae.) These sounds have been recorded in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island from early June to early September since 1965. At Middlebridge on the Pettaquamscutt River (Narrow River) there are typically 8 to 14 callers (“chattering”) present within a season, based on spectrographic and amplitude signatures. A typical chatter is a train of pulses with durations of up to 2.4 seconds with most energy between 800 Hz to 1800 Hz. Drumming consists of shorter pulse trains of lower pitch. Drumming is present in the spring, and chatter is present in the spring and summer. It was possible to identify individual chatterers throughout a season, and sound data suggest that individual fish are relatively stationary within separate ranges.