How do you make a fish dumber? Take it out of school

Maristela Previato

How do you make a fish dumber? Take it out of school

Schools of fish clump together for a very simple reason: safety in numbers. But for some, banding together offers more than just protection. It’s a way of getting to the head of the class. Schooling fish learn from each other, and new research shows that when they’re taken out of their normal social group, individuals struggle to learn on their own. Scientists have long known that schooling fish observe and learn from each other’s failures and successes, behaviors that stimulate neural development, especially in the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. But this is the first time they have found evidence of that link in spatial learning. To test their theory, scientists divided a school of social cichlid fish into two categories: 14 social fish and 15 loners. Researchers kept the social fish grouped together while they partitioned the loners into single-fish isolation tanks. They ran both groups through a simple T-shaped maze, color coding the side that harbored food—a yellow mark for food, a green mark for no food. Seven of the 14 socialized fish learned to associate yellow with food (high marks for the cichlids, which are not the brightest fish in the animal kingdom), whereas only three of the 15 isolated fish successfully made the same association. Writing in this month’s issue of Applied Animal Behaviour Science, the researchers say this suggests fish in group settings are able to learn better and faster than their singled out counterparts. The moral? Simple: Fish should stay in school.