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Fish Found to Have Human Learning Abilities

by the Fish Site Editor
18 June 2009, at 1:00am

GLOBE - Although worlds apart, the way fish learn could be closer to humans' way of thinking than previously believed, suggests a new research study.

A common species of fish which is found across Europe including the UK, called the nine-spined stickleback, could be the first animal shown to exhibit an important human social learning strategy. The sticklebacks can compare the behaviour of other sticklebacks with their own experience and make choices that lead to better food supplies, according to the study by St Andrews and Durham universities.

The researchers suggest these fish might have an unusually sophisticated social learning capability not yet found in other animals, called a 'hill-climbing' strategy.

This ability of picking the best quality food patch by comparing how successful others are at getting food from it against their personal experience has not been shown before in animals, say the scientists.

The team of researchers, which was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, suggests that in the case of the nine-spined stickleback it is likely to be a case of 'needs must' as the anatomy of this particular species of fish does not offer significant protection from predators to forage alone safely. They may have been 'forced' to learn from others about where to feed while hiding from predators as they themselves cannot risk looking for food sites in the open.

The scientists say the findings, published in the academic journal Behavioral Ecology, show that the cognitive mechanisms underlying cumulative cultural evolution may be more prevalent in nonhuman animals than currently believed. The findings show that big brains, like those in humans, are not necessarily needed as a pre-requisite for cumulative culture.

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.

Lead author Dr Jeremy Kendal from Durham University's Anthropology Department, and a Research Council UK Fellow, said: "Small fish may have small brains but they still have some surprising cognitive abilities."

the Fish Site Editor