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How Smart is a Fish?

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How Smart is a Fish?

Dogs are easy. You talk, they respond–smart! Fish, not so easy. It’s not like we get the frequent opportunity to really interact with them–and for anyone who’s seen a goldfish repetitively doing the rounds in its bowl, it’s easy to buy into the old adage that fish have only a three-second memory. (Although, do you remember Gus, Central Park Zoo’s “neurotic” polar bear? Much like a goldfish in a bowl, the old guy repetitively circled his habitat in the same exact manner day in and day out. But no-one accused him of having only a three-second memory–he got diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder caused by boredom, and got an animal therapist. Only in New York…)

Anyway. Research may suggest the possibility that a fish circles its bowl because it really is just impossibly bored, not because it doesn’t remember that it just did it again and again and again. What does Dr. Kevin Warburton, adjunct researcher with Charles Sturt University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society, have to say about the three-second memory of a fish? “Rubbish!”

Warburton, who has been studying fish behavior for years says, “There’s been a lot of work done over the last 15 years on learning and memory in fish and it as been found that fish are quite sophisticated. Fish can remember prey types for months; they can learn to avoid predators after being attacked once and they retain this memory for several months; and carp that have been caught by fishers avoid hooks for at least a year. That fish have only a three second memory is just rubbish.”

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Read more: Less Common Pets, Nature, Nature & Wildlife, News & Issues, Pets, , , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.

303 comments

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5:00AM PDT on Jun 30, 2013

thank you for sharing 30/6

10:54AM PDT on Mar 11, 2012

People need to get larger containers for fish and provide interesting items for the fish to interact with.

9:38AM PST on Mar 10, 2012

Where did this 3 second memory idea come from? If this person had ever kept any fish they would know that this is not true. I feed my fish once in the morning. They know , too. They get all excited when they first see me in the morning and crowd to the front of the tank. They have not been fed for 24 hours. But they know what is coming.

5:58AM PDT on Sep 8, 2011

Thanks for the article.

9:58AM PDT on Aug 24, 2011

This is very interesting, thanks!

7:47AM PDT on Aug 9, 2011

eternal boredom? that's horrible :( I think I should go read to my goldfish now.

5:35PM PDT on Jul 16, 2011

Poor little fish in their glass prisons.

1:16PM PDT on Jul 10, 2011

Interesting!

4:05PM PDT on Jul 7, 2011

do the goldfish have the came ablity as other fish? those are domesticated, I don't know if a pleco can be taught anything. can they?

3:31PM PDT on Jul 7, 2011

I'm sure fish are smart. It's just that nobody else knows it...yet.

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Great advice--enjoy the outside!!

Great article! Short and to the point. That's the way to go. :D

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