UNCW professor leads study, revealing hogfish can use its skin to see

Dr. Lorian Schweikert led the study that located the light-detecting cells in the fish.
UNCW professor leads study, revealing hogfish can use its skin to see
Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 6:15 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A nearly 7-year research project at UNCW led to a stunning discovery. Hogfish, which are found from North Carolina to the Caribbean, can see with their skin.

Assistant Professor of Biology and Marine Biology Lorian Schweikert was the lead author of the study. Her findings were published in Nature Communications last month.

It started in 2016 when Schweikert was fishing in the Florida Keys for hogfish. After catching one and picking it up, she noticed the fish changed colors to match the boat deck.

“I just couldn’t believe it...that this animal, the skin appeared to be doing this own and that maybe the skin could see the surrounding environment,” Schweikert said.

It’s that observation that led to the research project and a breakthrough discovery of locating the light-detecting cells in the fish. Schweikert originally thought the light-detecting cells might have been on the skin’s surface, but later found they’re actually buried under their screen of color change.

“It’s kind of like hiding a camera behind a movie screen so they can watch the movie of their color change as they move through life,” she said.

Schweikert worked in partnership with several professors across the Southeast and with two UNCW graduate students.

“This started as a passion project and from an experience I had with these animals in the wild. And then years later, it’s determined the trajectory of my research program here and the lives of my students, who I’m so proud to have involved in this study,” Schweikert said.

One of those students is Lydia Naughton, a third-year PhD student in the integrative, comparative and marine biology program. She says it’s been special to be a part of this research, the first of its kind.

“It’s been super impactful to me personally and kind of, professionally,” Naughton said. “Dr. Schweikert has really established such a great foundation for this research and I’m really proud to be continuing this project.”

The implications of this project go far beyond the ocean. Schweikert says the fish’s behavior uses a feedback system, something that could be helpful for the tech industry.

“Big tech really cares about smart systems, systems that can know how they’re performing, whether it’s a self-driving car or self-driving robot,” Schweikert said. “So, if we can look to biology for how it’s figured out how to solve problems, then maybe we can translate that to tech and improve our own experience.”

For now, Schweikert says she wants to know if the fish itself knows it is changing colors, but that’s just the next hurdle for her groundbreaking team at UNCW.