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After a swimming start, guppies jump, researchers find

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
April 28, 2013 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
A researcher started taking a closer look at the fish after one jumped from a tank into her drinking cup.
A researcher started taking a closer look at the fish after one jumped from a tank into her drinking cup.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U. of Maryland researchers say they've witnessed never-before-seen behavior in fish
  • Guppies jump by swimming backwards, then changing direction and launching
  • The biology professor and lecturer say the fish can jump eight times their body length
  • The best human long jumper ever, Mike Powell, jumped nearly five times his height

(CNN) -- The world record long jump of 29 feet, 4 1/4 inches, set by American Mike Powell, has stood for nearly 22 years.

That imposing distance is nearly five times Powell's 6-foot-2 height. But an athletic, evolved guppy would scoff at that accomplishment, if you can consider guppies athletic. And if guppies scoffed.

The popular pet fish can jump up to eight times their body length, at speeds of more than 4 feet per second, according to a recently published research paper in the online peer-reviewed journal PLOS One.

University of Maryland biologist Daphne De Freitas Soares and biology lecturer Hilary S. Bierman discovered the guppies' ability while using high-speed videography and digital imaging to analyze the jumping behavior of nine guppies from a wild Trinidadian species, Poecilia reticulata, related to the familiar pet-shop fish.

While studying evolutionary changes to the guppies' brain stems, one of the fish jumped out of a laboratory tank and into Soares' cup of iced chai, prompting closer scrutiny, she said.

Soares and Bierman reported the jumping guppies started from a still position, swam backwards slowly, then changed direction and hurtled into the air. No researcher has ever reported seeing a fish preparing to jump like that, Soares and Bierman said.

The Maryland researchers concluded that while many fish launch out of the water into the air to capture prey, migrate, or avoid predators, the guppies have a different evolutionary motive: to reach all the available habitat in Trinidad's mountain streams.

By dispersing, guppies move away from areas of heavy predation, minimize competition with one another and keep the species' genetic variability high, the researchers said.

That probably comes as no consolation to your children if their guppies jump out of their fish bowl. But at least now, you'll have a plausible explanation.

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