Your Inner Fish - Hiccups

inner fish.jpgNeil Shubin, author of “Your Inner Fish” can be heard discussing the fascinating story of evolution.

Shubin discusses a variety of strong evidences that support our common ancestry, one in particular caught my eye/ear.


Richard Dawkins’ site has an article (reposted form The University of Chicago Magazine which explains the link between hiccups and our ‘inner fish’.

First of all, hiccups are shared amongst mammals

If there is any consolation for getting hiccups, it is that our misery is shared with many other mammals. Cats can be stimulated to hiccup by sending an electrical impulse to a small patch of tissue in their brain stem. This area of the brain stem is thought to be the center that controls the complicated reflex that we call a hiccup. The hiccup reflex is a stereotyped twitch involving a number of muscles in our body wall, diaphragm, neck, and throat. A spasm in one or two of the major nerves that control breathing causes these muscles to contract. This results in a very sharp inspiration of air. Then, about 35 milliseconds later, a flap of tissue in the back of our throat (the glottis) closes the top of our airway. The fast inhalation followed by a brief closure of the tube produces the “hic.”

So how does the hiccup links us to our common ancestor? The story is fascinating

Our tendency to develop hiccups is another influence of our past. There are two issues to think about. The first is what causes the spasm of nerves that initiates the hiccup. The second is what controls that distinctive hic, the abrupt inhalation–glottis closure. The nerve spasm is a product of our fish history, while the hic is an outcome of the history we share with animals such as tadpoles.

Nerves and our inner fish

Shubin points out how the arrangement of the nerves which stimulate breathing in fish, cause an unfortunate side effect in mammals.

The problem is that the brain stem originally controlled breathing in fish; it has been jerry-rigged to work in mammals. Sharks and bony fish all have a portion of the brain stem that regulates the rhythmic firing of muscles in the throat and around the gills. The nerves that control these areas all originate in a well-defined portion of the brain stem. We can even see this nerve arrangement in some of the most primitive fish in the fossil record. Ancient ostracoderms, from rocks over 400 million years old, preserve casts of the brain and cranial nerves. Just as in living fish, the nerves that control breathing extend from the brain stem.

However, the nerves leave the brain at the same place as they do in fish but they have to travel further down to our diaphragm.

This convoluted path creates problems; a rational design would have the nerves traveling not from the neck but from somewhere nearer the diaphragm. Unfortunately, anything that interferes with one of these nerves can block their function or cause a spasm.

Pattern generators and amphibians

As Shubin pointed out earlier, the hiccup itself is an outcome of a history we share with amphibians. While in humans, the hiccup is mostly an annoyance (vestigial?), in tad poles, which have both lungs and gills, the hiccup is used to breathe with their gills. What a wonderful example of a living ‘transitional fossil’.

It turns out that the pattern generator responsible for hiccups is virtually identical to one in amphibians. And not in just any amphibians—in tadpoles, which use both lungs and gills to breathe. Tadpoles use this pattern generator when they breathe with gills. In that circumstance, they want to pump water into their mouth and throat and across the gills, but they do not want the water to enter their lungs. To prevent it from doing so, they close the glottis, the flap that closes off the breathing tube. And to close the glottis, tadpoles have a central pattern generator in their brain stem so that an inspiration is followed immediately by a closing glottis. They can breathe with their gills thanks to an extended form of hiccup.

The parallels between our hiccups and gill breathing in tadpoles are so extensive that many have proposed that the two phenomena are one and the same. Gill breathing in tadpoles can be blocked by carbon dioxide, just like our hiccups. We can also block gill breathing by stretching the wall of the chest, just as we can stop hiccups by inhaling deeply and holding our breath. Perhaps we could even block gill breathing in tadpoles by having them drink a glass of water upside down.