In contrast, the new system uses low-frequency sonar that can travel much greater distances and still return useful information with signals far less intense. This effectively "illuminates" vast areas of the ocean, about a million times larger than what could previously be studied. The images can be updated every minute, offering a chance to continuously monitor the shoals as they change in size and shape over time.
The new technology works best along the continental shelf, so the researchers focused their attention on the waters south of Long Island, New York. When they first started, they weren't looking for fish at all - they wanted to see if their device could locate ancient riverbeds under the ocean floor. But when their reconnaissance images did not match the riverbeds, the researchers went back with a new approach, and determined that they were seeing fish - tens of millions of fish.
This marks the first time scientists have been able to see the patterns formed by large fish populations. Makris found that fish often congregate in an hourglass pattern, also found among other animals, with a thin "bridge" connecting the two ends. The researchers also observed that the same shapes seen in a small scale appear on larger scales - tens of meters vs. tens of kilometers - displaying a fractal pattern.
Population density patterns could be a means of communication, Makris said. His team observed "waves" of population density that spread quickly through a shoal. "We have a situation where information can be very rapidly transmitted with these waves," he said.