Are fish far more intelligent than we realize? – Vox

Most people think of fish as somewhat less important than pigs, cows, chickens, and other land animals.

We have a vague idea that fish aren’t that smart (think of the common belief that fish only have a three-second memory), and we really wonder if they can feel pain. many people consider themselves vegetarian, but eat fish and abstain from all other meats.

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Australian biologist culum brown responds with a provocative argument, based on his years of research on fish behavior and learning. “They’re just no less intelligent or sophisticated than land animals,” he says. “That idea is a total myth.”

‘they are simply no less intelligent than land animals’

Fish don’t have a three-second memory, Brown discovered; in fact, they can be taught how to avoid a trap and remember it a year later. fish can learn about each other, recognize other fish they have previously spent time with, know their place within fish social hierarchies, and remember complex spatial maps of their environment. There is even some evidence, Brown has written, that they use tools.

So why do we think fish are stupid? “People just don’t interact with the fish in a meaningful way,” says Brown. “The aquatic world is completely different from the terrestrial world and, fundamentally, if you have not seen an animal work in its environment and you do not understand how it works, you will never really understand it completely.”

All of this, if true, could have huge ethical implications for the commercial fishing industry, and even more so for people who consider themselves vegetarian but eat fish. Brown recently exposed this case in the article Intelligence, Sensitivity and Ethics of Fishes. I talked to him to find out more about his views.

Joseph Stromberg: First of all, can you talk a little bit about some of the capabilities of fish that you’ve observed in experiments that might surprise people?

culum brown: the first is memory. everyone thinks that fish have a memory of three seconds. I have no idea where that started.

One of the first experiments I did with fish involved memory. I just caught some fish in the creeks around the university, put them in this fish tank, and ran an artificial trawl, which is basically a net with a hole, up and down the tank. to avoid getting trapped, the fish just had to figure out the escape route.

In five tries, about 15 minutes each, they had learned the escape route: they knew exactly where it was. I thought it was evidence of rapid learning, but not that surprising. but what surprised me is that I tried them a year later and they continued to improve their escape route responses. it was almost as if he had just made ten attempts in a row. And in the wild, these fish generally only live for one year, although you can keep them for up to five years in captivity. so effectively they had an hour of training and remembered it for their entire lives.

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(johan munk wolfhagen)

After that, I did some work on social learning. he had found that if he tested fish alone, they seemed to take longer to learn than if he tested them in groups. So I did the same drag test and found that a group of five fish learned much faster, but a couple of fish took three times as long. it was quite obvious that they were paying attention to each other.

and it turned out that they can learn all sorts of things from each other. In Cambridge, I did some experiments with farm-raised Atlantic salmon: We taught them how to recognize live prey, simply by placing them in a tank next to a demo fish that had already been trained to recognize bloodworms. normally when you first expose a farmed fish to live prey they are actually afraid of it, they have never seen it before. after 20 attempts, you can individually teach them to eat it. but if you let them see another fish eating it, it will only take them about five tries to learn.

so there is this massive social feedback. and we also use it to teach them things like where prey is likely to spawn. if you show them a neighbor feeding on the surface, the observer fish will preferentially go to the surface in search of food, and if you show them one feeding on the bottom, they will go to the bottom. you can even batch teach the fish: you can have multiple observers looking at the same demonstrator, and they will all learn. you can even use a video screen; They will also learn by watching a recording of a fish.

‘they had an hour of training and they remembered it all their lives’

So eventually we start to wonder: if fish can learn from their peers, can the information be passed down from one generation to the next? and basically we have shown that it can be done. we used guppies – we taught them to travel through a random door to access a pile of food, and started with a group of six or more, then gradually replaced them with naive fish until none of them had been taught by us, but The group as a whole retained the knowledge to travel through that original gate, although it is completely arbitrary.

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and there are examples of this kind of social and cultural tradition in wild fish. they largely have to do with movement and migration. for example, there is a fish called French grunt that, during the day, usually hides among the spines of sea urchins. once the sun goes down, they migrate to foraging patches. and it turns out that the routes they take are completely culturally controlled.

Some researchers did fantastic experiments where they transplanted populations of French Grunts and in some circumstances had access to the residents of the new place, but in other cases the residents had been wiped out. and when the residents were still there, the transplanted individuals followed them on their route, but when they were removed, the transplants went in the same direction as they would have if they had been at home, so they could not find feeding places. they were so good.

We even think that this type of cultural transmission, in some cases, could have an impact on humans. because species like Atlantic cod and several other important fish species seem to do exactly the same thing. so part of the reason cod fisheries are collapsing is that we continue to catch the biggest fish, which are the most informed: we’re taking the animals that know where the resources are, and it’s changing their migration patterns.

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Brown believes that disproportionate fishing of older and better informed Atlantic cod has disrupted the species’ migration patterns. (joachim s. müller)

js: You’ve also done a lot of work on the relationships between individual fish. can you tell me about that?

cb: sure. as part of my doctoral thesis, i wanted to see if it mattered who you put the fish with: could it be random, other fish, or do they actually know each other? And it turns out that the fish do care: if you give them a choice between going to a tank with a bunch of random fish, or another with individuals they’ve seen before, they almost always go with the previous ones.

It takes about 10-12 days to really get acquainted with new fish. And while no one has really pushed it, at least with guppies, they can learn up to 15 or so individual identities.

‘learning identities is really important for them, so they can figure out the position of each fish in the hierarchy’

It seems that learning identities is really important for them, so they can figure out the position of each fish in the hierarchy. we have seen that they can do that. and not only do they interact with others and discover their place in the hierarchy, but they can do so from the perspective of a third party. if a fish sees two other fish fighting, it can take note of the outcome of that interaction, and is much more likely to confront and attack the loser, the fish it thinks is lower in the hierarchy, and much less likely to attack the loser winner.

And in terms of third-party observation, we’ve even seen that if two males, for example, are fighting each other, they actually change their behavior depending on who’s looking at them. if the third party she observes is a male, it generally increases her aggressiveness, but if it is a female, it decreases her aggressiveness, because for mating, females are not interested in aggressive males.

In a sense, none of this is that surprising. fish live in these complex social groups. and they are as good as other vertebrates in terms of social intelligence.

js: Is there any kind of neurological evidence for this kind of social abilities?

cb: well, there have been articles showing that depending on the level of social interaction of a species, the brain can form in certain ways. the part that is responsible for keeping track of relationships tends to be enlarged in highly social species.

Initially, this idea was created just to describe humans. but then it had to be adapted to describe primates, birds, etc., as we discovered that it was true for them as well. And now, mostly recently, researchers have shown it to be true for fish. Basically, it seems to be a truth of biology: If you need to keep track of social relationships, you have to have the underlying brain structures to process that information.

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A diagram of fish brain structures that appear to be involved in social thought. (bshary et. al., trends in cognitive science)

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js: what about the capabilities of fish, in terms of spatial recognition, that you wrote about?

cb: Right, a lot of the work I’ve done has involved spatial learning in fish. and this is another area where fish are just as good as land animals.

The first thing is that fish are obviously capable of remembering locations. anyone who feeds fish will tell you this. in the morning, at the appropriate time, the fish will gather at the far right of the tank, waiting to be fed. that is called time and place learning: they are learning a place and associate it with a time. and we did some experiments that showed that fish can be taught to congregate at one end of the tank in the morning and at the other end in the evening.

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two orange striped gobies. (klaus stiefel)

Some of the most recent work we’ve done involves spatial learning in intertidal gobies: they’re the most common species found on the beach in these rocky pools. It turns out that rock pool fish are especially good at spatial learning. these gobies, for example, can learn a t-maze very quickly. and if you tag them in the wild, with a fluorescent tag, you’ll find that they tend to stay in the same rock pool for weeks, but if you move them, say, pick them up at low tide and move them 100 feet, within a few days, they’re back in their home pools.

‘turns out rock pool fish are especially good at spatial learning’

There was an elegant experiment done in the 1950s, in which a researcher set up an artificial tidal environment: two shallow pools and one very deep pool, representing the ocean. and in fact the tide came in and out, so sometimes the shallow pools were full and connected, and sometimes they weren’t. eventually, he could prod the fish with a stick, and they would jump into the air and land in a neighboring pool; they spatially remembered where they were, even when they were not connected. this is what we call a spatial map. when they are jumping, they cannot see where they are going. they have to do it from memory.

js: well, given these capabilities, why do you think people assume that fish are less intelligent than land animals?

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cb: I think there are two reasons. one is quasi-scientific, and it has to do with the historical Christian influence on the way scientific thought developed in the West. if you didn’t say that humans were at the top of the scale, in terms of species, you were burned at the stake. so when people started thinking about evolution, they saw it as a gradual progression, with humans leading the way. then came the land animals, then came the fish. the bible even says very specifically that the fish are here to be exploited by us. it says that all the animals are placed here for us, but the fish are always seen as the lowest rung. so when scientists began to understand evolution, they still thought of it as a hierarchy of animals.

but that’s a distorted view of evolution. that’s just not how it works. if you look at, for example, perch, they only emerged around the same time as humans. they are not older than us. both humans and perch are basically the current branches at the end of the evolutionary tree. evolution has had plenty of time to work on fish behavior and make it as sophisticated as any other animal.

and evolution, fundamentally, is random. there are random mutations, and some work and some don’t. you are not progressing towards a higher goal. but in schools today, you still get this teaching of progressive evolution: moving up through levels, from fish, to amphibians, to reptiles, to birds, to mammals, to humans. that’s part of the problem.

The other big reason is that people just don’t interact with the fish in a meaningful way. in the united states, about 0.005 percent of people scuba dive, about 5 out of 100,000. the aquatic world is completely different from the land world, and fundamentally, if you haven’t seen an animal work in its environment and understand how works, you’re never really going to fully understand it. then you will most likely completely ignore or misunderstand them.

That’s why if you ask the average person “do fish have a memory of three seconds?” They will say yes. and when I tell people what I do, that I study the behavior of fish, you should see the expression on their faces. most people look at me in disbelief and the standard response is “but the fish don’t do anything”.

I have kind of a traveling roadshow that I take to schools and science fairs, and overwhelmingly, people don’t believe in what fish can do. they just don’t think about it. and the new generation of kids is so cut off from the natural world: they don’t know where food comes from and they’ve never been anywhere without air conditioning. therefore trying to teach them about the environment and animal behavior is really tricky. it’s rewarding, because you get a fantastic response, but it’s hard. I tell them: put a tube in your head and go out and see the world.

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a coral reef in the red sea. (andres k.)

js: All of this raises a big question: If fish really are as smart as land animals, what are the ethical implications of that?

cb: is a very interesting circumstance. if you do scientific research with fish, you have to go through the same procedures as if you were working with dogs, cats or monkeys. you have to go to the ethics committee and explain the harms, the benefits and all that. so for most scientists, there is no implication.

but for the rest of the world, there are huge implications. For example, Britain is thought to be the most progressive country in the world, in terms of animal rights. they just started to introduce legislation for aquaculture, which basically says that producers have to report the number of animal deaths, which is absolutely essential, and they have to report when they ship fish. but this started in the ’50s and ’60s for commercial land-based farms, when we started thinking about things like moving pigs on the back of trucks and whether chickens had access to the real world. that revolution stopped in the water. all major commercial farming systems have some ethical laws, except for fish. no one has ever asked the questions: “what does a fish want? what does a fish need?”

‘every major farming system has some ethical laws, except for fish’

Part of the problem comes back to the question of whether fish feel pain. but for the last 30 years, neurophysiologists have known that it is, and haven’t even argued about it. And from an evolutionary perspective, our pain perception systems—and the systems of all terrestrial vertebrates—derive from a fish-like ancestor. whether they are in the water or on land, they all have the same pain receptors. but for some reason, many people refuse to believe that fish can feel pain. there was an article that came out last year that basically said, “fish don’t feel pain because they don’t have the same brain as humans.” is the most ridiculous argument, but the paper got a lot of press. maybe that’s the kind of message people want to hear.

I believe that, ultimately, the revolution will come. but it will be slow, because the implications are enormous. For example, I can’t think of a way to catch fish in the open ocean in a massive commercial way to meet demand that would be anywhere near our ethical standards if we think of them as other animals. currently, you go out, you catch a bunch of fish, you crush most of them to death in a net, you drag them up from the bottom of the sea, causing barotrauma to most of them, you throw them on a deck, half suffocated until death, the ones you don’t want are thrown overboard and die anyway, and the ones you keep are kept on ice, just to preserve the meat for market reasons. how do you do that in a way that fish interests are involved to some degree? you can’t.

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black cod caught off the coast of alaska. (nick rahaim)

so it’s no surprise that there’s fierce opposition to this idea. it would mean a massive change in the way we do things.

For aquaculture, at least, we have some control, and I suspect the movement will start there. I could imagine having Atlantic salmon, say, from a farm that has some kind of humane treatment approval, free range, or whatever, for people who are willing to pay a little more for an animal that has been treated reasonably well .

js: that’s interesting. Right now, that’s something that exists for other types of meat, but not for fish that I know of.

cb: right, it does. If I go to a store in the UK, US or Australia, I can probably find beef or lamb where the welfare of that animal has had at least some effect on practices. but that product does not exist for fish. there is no such thing.

and another interesting difference, frankly, it’s strange, is that there are many people who call themselves vegetarian, but eat fish. as if fish were not animals. are they potatoes? I really don’t understand that perspective.

note: this interview has been condensed and edited.

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