Common stickleback the ‘genius of the fish world’

Wednesday 17 June 2009

A common species of fish found in Europe and across the UK is the ‘genius of the fish world’ according to researchers at the University of St Andrews.

The new study has found that the way fish learn could be much closer to the human way of thinking than previously believed.

Researchers Kevin Laland and Jeremy Kendal believe the nine-spined stickleback could be the first animal shown to exhibit an important human social learning strategy.  The researchers say the findings contribute to the understanding of brain evolution and the types of brain required for certain cognitive functions, both in humans and animals.

Stickleback are found in fresh and marine water environments in Europe, Asia, and North America, and feed on small crustaceans and fish larvae.  According to the new study published today, nine-spined sticklebacks can compare the behaviour of others to make choices that lead to better food supplies.

The ability to pick the best quality food patch by comparing how successful others have been has not been shown before in animals.  It also appears to prove that big brains, like those in humans, are not necessarily needed as a pre-requisite for cumulative culture.

The study was led by Dr Jeremy Kendal, now based at Durham University’s Anthropology Department.  He said, “Small fish may have small brains but they still have some surprising cognitive abilities.   Such `hill-climbing’ strategies are widely seen in human society whereby advances in technology are down to people choosing the best technique through social learning and improving on it, resulting in cumulative culture.   But our results suggest brain size isn’t everything when it comes to the capacity for social learning.”

The researchers believe that the species were forced to learn from others because they cannot protect themselves from predators.  Instead, since they are unable to forage alone safely, they hide from predators while watching others find feeding locations.

The scientists say the findings show that the cognitive mechanisms underlying cumulative cultural evolution may be more prevalent in nonhuman animals than currently believed.

Dr Kendal continued, “Lots of animals observe more experienced peers and that way gain foraging skills, develop food preferences, and learn how to evade predators.  But it is not always a recipe for success to simply copy someone.  Animals are often better off being selective about when and who they copy.

“These fish are obviously not at all closely related to humans, yet they have this human ability to only copy when the pay off is better than their own.  You might expect this ability in animals who are closely related to humans.  In the case of the nine-spined stickleback, they have most likely adapted to their local ecology.”

Dr Kendal carried out the study at the St Andrews’ School of Biology with Professor Kevin Laland and Drs Luke Rendell and Thomas Pike.

Professor Laland commented, “Nine-spined sticklebacks may be the geniuses of the fish world. It’s remarkable that a form of learning found to be optimal in humans is exactly what these fish do.”

The research is published in Behavioral Ecology by Oxford University Press, 2009, and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.




Dr Jeremy Kendal, Department of Anthropology, Durham University, +44 (0)191 334 1630 [email protected]

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Press Officer on 01334 467227 / 462529, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected]
Ref:  Genius fish 170609
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