“Small fish may have small brains but they still have some surprising cognitive abilities”, says Dr Jeremy Kendal* from Durham University’s Anthropology Department.

Dr Kendal is the lead author of a new study showing that Nine-spined stickleback fish (Pungitius pungitius) can compare the behaviour of other sticklebacks with their own experience and make choices that lead to better food supplies.

Ninespine stickleback Learning from the best

“‘Hill-climbing’ strategies are widely seen in human society whereby advances in technology are down to people choosing the best technique through social learning and improving on it, resulting in cumulative culture”, says Dr Kendal. “But our results suggest brain size isn’t everything when it comes to the capacity for social learning.”

Around 270 Nine-spined sticklebacks were caught from Melton Brook in Leicester using dip nets. After being divided into three experimental groups and one control group, the fish were housed in different aquariums and the fish in the experimental groups were subjected to two different learning experiences and two preference tests in a tank with a feeder placed at each end.

1.) The fish were free to investigate both feeders during a number of training trials. One feeder (dubbed “rich feeder”) always handed out more worms than the other one (dubbed “poor feeder”). The fish were then tested to see which feeder they preferred.
2.) In the second training trail, those fish that come to prefer the rich feeder could see other fish feeding. During this stage, the rich and poor feeders were swapped around and the rich feeder either gave even more worms than before or roughly the same or less. During the second test, the fish were once again free to explore the tank and both feeders. Around 75 per cent of the Nine-spined sticklebacks had learned from watching the other fish that the rich feeder, previously experienced first hand themselves as the poor feeder, gave them more worms. In comparison, significantly fewer sticklebacks favoured the feeder that appeared to be rich from watching other sticklebacks if they themselves had experience that the alternative feeder would hand out roughly the same or more worms.

Further testing showed that the sticklebacks were more likely to copy the behaviour of fast feeding fish.

“Lots of animals observe more experienced peers and that way gain foraging skills, develop
food preferences, and learn how to evade predators”, Dr Kendal explained. “But it is not always a recipe for success to simply copy someone. Animals are often better off being selective about when and who they copy. These fish are obviously not at all closely related to humans, yet they have this human ability to only copy when the pay off is better than their own.”

The study, which has been published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, was carried out by scientists from St Andrews and Durham universities and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The lead author of the study, Dr Kendal, is a Research Council UK Fellow.