A Smart Fish in a Dangerous Pond

Mistakes are the portals of discovery.
James Joyce

Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.
Benjamin Franklin

Nice quotes, but I think I’ll just avoid making mistakes, thank you very much.
Stickleback Fish

When you or I make a mistake, we can seek comfort in witty sayings, self-help programs and expensive therapy sessions. When a nine-spined stickleback fish makes a mistake, it often ends up in the belly of another marine animal.

Nine-Spined Stickleback (BBC News)

Perhaps motivated by this rather unpleasant truth, sticklebacks – a small fish commonly found in North America, Europe and Asia – have developed some unusually sophisticated social learning capabilities. In particular, sticklebacks are able to compare the feeding behavior of other sticklebacks with their own experience and choose which fish to copy in order to find more food. This capability, sometimes referred to as a “hill climbing” strategy, has not been observed in any animals other than sticklebacks and humans … at least those humans who aren’t too busy making mistakes in order to enjoy character-building learning opportunities. More importantly (to the sticklebacks), this voyeuristic approach to feeding enables them to learn where to feed while relaxing in safe places rather than running a gauntlet of predators to search for feeding sites in the open.

In a study published in Behavioral Ecology1, English researchers placed 270 sticklebacks in a tank with two feeders, one of which – the “rich feeder” – supplied a lot more food than the other. The fish that learned to prefer the rich feeder were then allowed to watch other sticklebacks feeding in the same  tank but, this time, the rich feeder no longer provided more food (in some cases, it provided less food, in others it provided about the same amount of food). When the observing group was given another opportunity to feed, about 75% were “clever” enough to know from watching the other fish that they should avoid the formerly rich feeder if it was now giving out less food, choosing the new improved feeder instead. However, in situations where the change in feeders resulted in each providing roughly the same amount of food, the observers did not copy the other fish and stuck with their initial choice.

As reported in ScienceDaily2, the BBC News3, and the Guardian4, one of the authors, professor Kevin Laland from the School of Biology at St Andrews University, saluted the sticklebacks for their learning prowess: “Nine-spined sticklebacks may be the geniuses of the fish world. It’s remarkable that a form of learning found to be optimal in humans is exactly what these fish do.” Another researcher, Jeremy Kendal from Durham University’s anthropology department added: “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. But our results suggest brain size isn’t everything when it comes to the capacity for social learning.”

So, in a fish eat fish world where mistakes can be costly, we would be well advised to balance our trial by error tendencies against the wisdom of a species that has learned how to succeed without putting itself into jeopardy.


1Jeremy R. Kendal, Luke Rendell, Thomas W. Pike, and Kevin N. Laland. Nine-spined sticklebacks deploy a hill-climbing social learning strategy. Behavioral Ecology, 2009; 20 (2): 238.

2ScienceDaily, “Common Fish Species Has ‘Human’ Ability To Learn,” June 17, 2009.

3BBC News, “‘Genius’ claim for sticklebacks,” June 17, 2009.

4The Guardian, “Sticklebacks show human-like intelligence when searching for food,” June 16, 2009.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: