The whole idea that fish don’t have long-term memories and aren’t very smart, in general probably arose because their brains look very different from ours and they’re often thought of as primitive because they were among the earliest vertebrates—they split off from the rest of the gang several hundred million years ago.
The main reason many scientists thought fish were less intelligent than mammals because they don’t have a Neocortex (the outer part of the brain found in mammals)which are particularly large and wrinkly in humans, and in us, it’s responsible for higher cognitive functions like problem-solving, abstract thinking and planning, it was long assumed that fish just couldn’t do any of those things.
But in the past few decades, researchers have come up with clever ways to test their intelligence, and fish keep excelling at those tests.
Many people who keep those giant goldfish-like species say that they can recognize the person that feeds them and know when and where they’ll be fed; this is called time-place learning and scientists have found those koi keepers are right, when they fed laboratory fish at one end of their tank in the morning and the other end in the evening, they picked up the pattern and would wait in the right place for their next meals.
were able to associate a light turning on with food after about 14 repetitions. It takes rats about 40 repetitions before they learn a similar association, and the memories fish form last a whole lot longer than 3 seconds.
experiences have shown that rainbowfish can remember the location of a hole in a net for a whole year—and given that they typically only live about 2 years in the wild, a year is a pretty long time and not only do their memories last—some fish are really quick learners.
In a 2012 study, researchers gave cleaner wrasses, capuchin monkeys, chimps and orangutans the same learning test by placing equal amounts of food on two colored plates, One plate color was always removed when they ate from the other one, so the animals had to learn which color to eat from first.
The fish was the first to pick that up—most of the primates never got it, and they were also quickest to figure things out when the researchers switched which color plate stuck around, thereby demonstrating reversal learning—a cognitive feat usually associated with brain size, and therefore high intelligence.
Fish can also remember complex location information by creating something called a cognitive map, it’s kind of like the map of your neighborhood you have in your head in addition for frillfin gobies that live in tide pools in the Caribbean, having a good mental map is a matter of life and death, when scared, these gobies will leap out of their home pool into a neighboring one, so they have to know where those neighboring pools are,
otherwise, they’ll end up on the rocks—and become a tasty seagull snack.
In the 1950s, researchers showed that gobies removed from their home pools for up to 40 days were still able to remember the location of neighboring pools and jump into them when scared and that’s just one example—studies have found other species can remember the locations of food, predators, hiding places, and potential mates.
When it comes to navigation, fish seem to be every bit as skilled as their land-dwelling kin, but the navigation doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, at least not in the way that humans define it.
One of the high bars we set for intelligence in other animals is the ability to use tools that scientists roughly define as using an inanimate object to do something you can’t do with your body alone. Are there fish use tools!?
Several species of wrasse have been shown to use rocks to smash open sea urchins also some freshwater fish that make nests—like cichlids and catfish—will glue their eggs to a leaf or rock so they can pick them up and relocate them easily if the nest is disturbed.
When it comes to the social side some fish are socially adept, they can tell individuals apart, remember who’s who, and learn from their peers, also some fish use their social skills to work with other species.
Perhaps the most impressive case of cooperation is the joint hunting done by groupers and eels in the Red Sea.
A grouper will wake its normally-nocturnal hunting buddy during the day by approaching a moray eel’s cave and shaking its head in a particular way. Then, the duo will take to the reef—the grouper snacks on small fish that the moray spooks out of the reef into open water while the moray nabs the fish that dart into crevices in the reef to escape the grouper in addition to groupers will sometimes invite wrasses or octopuses to hunt with them too, also they can tell their partners where a fish is hiding by doing a special headstand!
All of which suggests they’ve got pretty stellar social cognition—the cognitive processes related to understanding and interacting with others.
A lot of this was probably overlooked because we humans had preconceived notions about which animals were smarter than others and a lot of the time, we still bias our tests towards our ideas of intelligence—though, we’re getting better about that.
Intelligence is subjective, and it turns out when we design better tests, we find that all sorts of species have cognitive abilities we never expected.
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