Here's What Happens When Fish Get Drunk


Let it be known: Humans are not the only ones whose egos are bolstered by booze. A recent study suggests the humble zebrafish becomes a more confident leader when intoxicated.

How does one get a zebrafish drunk, you ask? A team of researchers led by Maurizio Porfiri, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Dynamical Systems Laboratory, did so by letting them swim in a solution of ethanol. The solution ranged in alcohol concentration (0.00, 0.25, 0.50, and 1.00 percent ethanol) and some fish got stronger solutions than others. After a fish marinated in the sauce for five minutes, researchers dropped it into fresh water with a school of sober fish and monitored their response to their boozed up buddy.

The results showed that, much like humans, when zebrafish have a slight buzz (those exposed to the .25 percent and .50 percent ethanol concentration), they throw their inhibitions out the window. They swim faster, and show little fear or hesitation. And when they’re around their peers, they go even faster—and surprisingly, the sober fish increase their speed to keep up.

The tipsy fish also showed signs of leadership; its assertive movements steered the direction of the entire group. When the intoxicated fish turned, so did the others. Researchers think this may be because they were influenced by the fish’s alcohol-induced boldness, which they might have interpreted as a sign of leadership.

But, as with humans, it pays to know your limits. Fish exposed to the 1.00 percent ethanol solution lost their leadership skills and lagged behind the other fish, seemingly a bit stumbly and slow. Researchers hope the study can lead to future revelations about how the behaviors of one drunken individual influence an entire group.

But why are scientists getting fish wasted in the first place? It turns out, we’ve been doing it for a while.

Zebrafish, specifically, have a lot of similarities to humans when it comes to development, behavior, and genetics, says Sachit Butail, coauthor of the new paper. And of course, alcoholism and the impacts of drinking on humans are incredibly relevant to modern society. We’ve been studying how alcohol affects zebrafish embryos for years. In 2011, researchers exposed embryos to small amounts of alcohol and found it caused them to be more anti-social as adults. This could lead to new insights into how a pregnant woman’s alcohol consumption impacts unborn babies.

Just last year, researchers—including some also behind the new study—got zebrafish drunk before dropping a robotic decoy fish, designed to look like and act like a fertile female, into their tank. Sober fish eagerly welcomed the new robotic companion. But when under the influence, they avoided it.

But the real question here is this: Do fish get hangovers? Sachit said he couldn’t speculate, but that “they get back to complete normalcy after a day or so.” I guess they really aren’t so different from us.

Is There Any Point in Letting Red Wine Breathe?

by Aliya Whiteley

At the end of a long day, few things beat simple pleasures like watching a good film, eating a bar of chocolate the size of your head, or drinking a big glass of red wine.

By this point in the evening, most people don’t want to be told that they need to uncork the bottle and let the wine sit for at least 30 minutes before it becomes pleasantly drinkable. Yet that's (by the letter of the unwritten law) what you're supposed to do.

But why? Well, let's start with the assorted historical reasons.

Red wine has been around since the Stone Age. In fact, in 2011 a cave was uncovered in Armenia where the remains of a wine press, drinking and fermentation vessels, and withered grape vines were uncovered; the remains were dated at 5500 years old. Early winemaking often had a ritualistic aspect: Wine jars were found in Ancient Egyptian tombs, and wine appears in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

The concept of letting wine "breathe" is, historically speaking, relatively new and probably has its roots in the way wine was once bottled and stored.

Traditionally, sulfur is added to wine in order to preserve it for longer, and if too much is added the wine might well have an ... interesting aroma when first opened—the kind of "interesting aroma" that bears more than a passing resemblance to rotten eggs. Contact with the air may have helped to remove the smell, so decanting wine may once have been a way of removing unwelcome odors, as well as getting rid of the sediment that built up in the bottom of bottles.

It’s also possible that the concept springs from the early 1860s, when Emperor Napoleon III asked Louis Pasteur to investigate why so much French wine was spoiling in transit. Pasteur published his results, which concluded that wine coming into contact with air led to the growth of bacteria, thus ruining the vino. However, small amounts of air improved the flavor of the wine by "aging" it. In bottles, with a cork stopper, the wine still came into contact with a small amount of oxygen, and by storing it for years the wine was thought to develop a deeper flavor.

However, how much of that actually matters today?

Many experts agree that there is no point in simply pulling out the cork and letting the wine sit in an open bottle for any period of time; the wine won’t come into enough contact with oxygen to make any difference to the taste.

However, decanting wine might still be a useful activity. The truth is this: It entirely depends on the wine.

Nowadays we don’t really age wine anymore; we make it with the aim of drinking it quickly, within a year or so. But some types of wine that are rich in tannins (compounds that come from the grape skins and seeds) can benefit from a period of time in a decanter, to soften the astringent taste. These include wines from Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley, for instance.

If you really want to know if a particular wine would benefit from being given time to breathe, try your own experiment at home. Buy two bottles, decant one, and let it breathe for an hour. Do you notice a difference in the taste? Even if you don’t, it's an experiment that justifies opening two bottles of wine.

One word of warning: No matter where a wine comes from, it is possible to overexpose it to oxygen. So remember Pasteur’s experiments and don’t leave your wine out of the bottle for days. That, friends, would be one hell of a waste.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

A Beer From the Middle Ages Is Making a Serious Comeback

Hop-forward beer is all the rage today, but in the middle ages many imbibers preferred brews that skewed towards the sweeter side. Now, centuries after it fell out of fashion, Atlas Obscura reports that gruit ale is making a comeback.

Gruit beer is any beer that features botanicals in place of hops. The ingredients that give the drink its distinctive sweet, aromatic taste can be as familiar as ginger and lavender or as exotic as mugwort and seabuckthorn. The herbs play the role of hops by both adding complex flavors and creating an inhospitable environment for harmful microbes.

It may be hard for modern beer lovers to imagine beer without hops, but prior to the 16th century gruit was as common in parts of Europe as IPAs are in hip American cities today. Then, in 1516, that style of beer suddenly vanished from pint glasses: That was the year Germany passed a beer purity law that restricted beer formulas to hops, water, and barley. Many of the key botanicals in gruit beer were considered aphrodisiacs at the time, and the rising Puritan movement helped push the brew further into obscurity.

Hops have dominated the beer scene ever since, and only in the past few decades have microbrewers started giving old gruit recipes the attention they're due. In 2017, the Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois released their seasonal Scratch Tonic, made from a combination of dandelion, carrot tops, clover, and ginger. The Põhjala Brewery in Estonia brews their Laugas beer using Estonian herbs, caraway, and juniper berries. Get in touch with your local microbrewery to see if they have their own version of the old-school beer in their line-up.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]


More from mental floss studios