Fish Can Multitask: Scientific Review Finds that Fish are Both Cognitively and Behaviorally Complex

Fish Can Multitask: Scientific Review Finds that Fish are Both Cognitively and Behaviorally Complex

New Journal Article Concludes: “Fish Perception and Cognitive Abilities Often Match or Exceed Other Vertebrates.”

New York, NY — According to a paper that will be published in the next issue of the esteemed journal Animal Cognition, “fish perception and cognitive abilities often match or exceed other vertebrates.” In fact, “fish have a high degree of behavioural plasticity and compare favourably to humans and other terrestrial vertebrates across a range of intelligence tests.”

The author of the paper, Dr. Culum Brown, is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University, in Sydney, Australia. He is co-editor of the book Fish Cognition and Behaviour (Wiley Blackwell), editor of the journal Animal Behaviour, and assistant editor of The Journal of Fish Biology.

Dr. Brown’s article, which is the first to distill for journal publication the voluminous research that exists into fish behavior and cognition, reviews the full range of ethological aptitudes, detailing dozens of studies and extrapolating from those results to determine what we do and do not know about fish. The areas considered include: evolution and biological complexity; sensory perception; cerebral lateralization; pain; and cognition (including learning and memory, social learning, social intelligence, tool use, and numerical competency).

With intriguing examples and reviewing all of the scientific literature to date, Dr. Brown concludes that “fish compare well to the rest of the vertebrates in most tasks,” differing little in cognitive and behavioral complexity from primates.

For example, they:

  • can “perform multiple complex tasks simultaneously” due to cerebral lateralization, a trait that was until recently thought to be uniquely human;
  • can recall the location of objects using feature cues, a capacity developed by humans at approximately the age of six;
  • “have excellent long-term memories” (including time-place, spatial, social, and aversive experiences);
  • “live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals and can learn from one another, a process that leads to the development of stable cultural traditions … similar to some of those seen in birds and primates”;
  • “cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence such as cooperation and reconciliation”;
  • can use tools, another “in a long list of skills that was supposed to be unique to humans”;
  • “use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as we do” (numerosity is yet another of the capacities that scientists once thought unique to human beings).

Dr. Brown also notes that of course fish feel pain, since “it would be impossible for fish to survive as the cognitively and behaviourally complex animals they are without a capacity to feel pain.” In the paper, he points out that pain perception is essential to animal survival and that it has deep evolutionary origins across all vertebrate species.

This is the first paper produced with grant money from The Someone Project, an endeavor aimed at raising the public’s understanding of farm animal cognition and behavior.

Contact: Meredith Turner, Farm Sanctuary
646-369-6212; mturner@farmsanctuary.org