Why fish are smarter than you think
The well-known stereotype that fish are pea-brains with memories like sieves has been challenged by scientists, who claim that fish are far more intelligent than previously thought.
A newly published set of articles by researchers at the Universities of St Andrews, Edinburgh and Leeds challenges the common perception that fish are “drudging and dim- witted pea brains, driven largely by instinct”. On the contrary, they are cultured, clever and actually have quite good long-term memories.
And though they might have small brains, they can be just as intelligent as other vertebarates.
The research, co-edited by Drs Kevin Laland (St Andrews), Culum Brown (Edinburgh) and Jens Krause (Leeds) is published in the September edition of Fish and Fisheries journal.
In the paper, ‘Learning in fishes: from three-second memory to culture’, Dr Laland said:
“Learning plays a pivotal role in the behavioural development of all vertebrates, and fish are no exception. Although it may seem extraordinary to those comfortably used to pre-judging animal intelligence on the basis of brain volume, in some cognitive domains, fish can even be favourably compared to non-human primates.
“Two themes emerge from this review. The first is that the learning abilities of fishes are comparable to land vertebrates, and whether one considers the neural circuitry, psychological processes or behavioural strategies, fish learning appears to rely on processes strikingly similar to that of other vertebrates. The second is that fish provide a flexible and pragmatic biological model system for studying learning and information transmission processes, and in many respects, can be regarded as ideal subjects for research into learning and memory.”
The collection of articles dismisses the notion that fish are hopelessly inflexible creatures hampered by their infamous ‘three- second memory’. Such changing perceptions, the authors maintain, coincide with a ‘sea change’ in scientific understanding of fishes’ psychological and cognitive abilities.
Also apparent is the considerable variability in fish behaviour, both across the 27,000 known species and among the geographical variants of the same species.
“These days, fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of ‘manipulation, punishment and reconciliation’; exhibiting stable ‘cultural’ traditions; and co-operating with each other to inspect predators and catch food. Fish not only recognise individual shoal mates, but also monitor the social prestige of other fish and track the relationships of other individuals. They also use tools, build complex nests and can even exhibit impressive long-term memories,” said Dr Laland.
The special issue of the journal, Learning and Memory in Fishes: Why fish are smarter than you think, contains contributions from biologists around the world. The series of reviews is the first major survey of the role of learning in fish behaviour since 1992, and it reflects an explosion of interest in this topic.
Dr Laland is based at the University of St Andrews’ Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution at the School of Biology.
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