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Fish Intelligence – Research and Products for Home Experiments – Part 2

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Fishes outnumber all other vertebrates combined, with nearly 30,000 species identified so far.  No doubt, the ability to learn has assisted in this success.  In Part I of this article, I recounted my experiences with “educated” electric eels in Venezuela, and gave some other examples of fish intelligence.  I’ll continue here, with an emphasis on memory.

If you would like to experiment with your own pets’ learning abilities, please check out our extensive line of fish feeding products , and don’t forget to write in with your observations.

Memorizing Terrain

Frillfin gobies inhabit tidal pools.  When disturbed, a goby will leap from its pool to several others in succession.  It always lands in another pool, despite the fact that it is jumping without seeing the next pool, and changing directions.

Ichthyologists (fish biologists) have discovered that gobies memorize the location of tide pools at high tide, when they swim about over the area in which they live.  Imagine, if you will, trying to do this yourself while snorkeling…and then consider the how much more complicated the task would be to a tiny fish!

Gobies transplanted to unfamiliar tide pools refuse to jump…if forced to do so, they invariably miss the next pool and hit dry land.  Yet after just one high tide, the gobies learn the new habitat and can then jump accurately from pool to pool.  In what must surely be the most amazing fish memory feat known, the tiny fishes retain their internal map of the new tide pools even if removed from the area for 40 days!

Learning by Observing Others

Sea bass were allowed to watch other bass undergo a training program in which the participants were rewarded with food if they pushed at a certain lever.  Some bass were better than others at learning this skill.  “Student bass” that had watched “smart” bass immediately pressed the levers themselves when given the opportunity.  Those that had observed bass that did poorly in the training took much longer to master the lever trick themselves.

French grunts travel from sleeping to foraging grounds each day. Grunts re-located to new habitats follow resident fishes to and from foraging grounds.  After 2 days, the transplanted fishes are able to find their way to the foraging grounds – an average distance of .5 miles – even if the resident grunts are removed.

Goldfishes that watch others foraging in an aquarium with hidden food are able to learn and remember what areas of the tank held food. When released into the tank, they ignore areas where the original fishes found no food, and head immediately for the most productive feeding sites.

Remembering Bad and Good Experiences

An American eel that was my mother’s (somewhat unusual!) pet for 17 years quickly learned to associate people with food.  It was kept in a high-traffic area, but did not rise to the surface for food unless someone stopped in front of its aquarium…people passing by were ignored.

Perch separated from minnows by a glass partition stop trying to catch the minnows after crashing into the glass.  When the glass is removed, the perch refuse to chase the minnows, apparently associating them with a bad experience.  Note: this lesson wears off when predators get very hungry, so don’t try it in hopes of keeping Oscars with sword tails!

Further Reading

You can read more about fish learning abilities in an interesting Fish and Fisheries article and in The Everything Aquarium Book.

Please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

American Eel image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Freida.

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.