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Can Fish Form a Human Attachment?

There is some evidence to suggest they can.

Can Fish Form a Human Attachment?

As a pet owner we all want to be able to form a meaningful and lasting bond with our pets. While this certainly may be easier with a fluffy dog or cat, there is some evidence to suggest that fish can form an attachment with their owners. Once thought of as a trivial species with minimal cognitive abilities, new science is emerging that suggests that fish are not only intelligent, but have the capabilities to form a meaningful connection with people. This is great news for fish owners across the world dedicated to taking care of their aquariums.

Measuring Fish Intelligence

As humans we regularly try to examine and understand the intelligence of various animals. But can a fish really be compared to a pet cat or dog when it comes to intelligence and cognitive ability? It turns out that fish are far smarter than we give them credit for. The common myth associated with goldfish is that they only have a three second memory, but tests have been completed to disprove this myth.

There have been multiple recent intelligence tests performed on fish to measure their memory. In a series of tests, described in detail by Culum Brown, fish had to memorize a specific pattern in order to escape being caught in a net. After only about 15 trials for the fish to learn the escape route, and about 5 minutes of practice, the fish knew exactly where to go in order to avoid being caught. Interestingly, when the same fish were tested one year later, not only did they remember the escape pattern to avoid capture, but they improved on their time to escape the net. This trial disproves the commonly held three second memory myth.

Memory To Human Attachment

If a fish is able to remember how to evade a net, is it able to remember a person? As pet owners, we crave the bond and attachment with our pets, no matter what species they are. It turns out new research points to the fact that fish not only have a good memory, but can recognize their owners. Dr. Cait Newport conducted an experiment to examine just this question.

In her study titled, Discrimination of Human Faces by Archerfish, Dr. Newport conducts an experiment to determine a fish's ability to recognize one particular face. In the study an archerfish was trained to pinpoint a photo of a human face by spitting water at it. Training each fish was relatively easy, with most fish completing training after just a few days. The fish was given a reward for spitting at the correct face. When presented with new faces, sometimes up to 44 different human faces, the archerfish spit at the correct face nearly 81% of the time.

While this is impressively accurate, it suggests larger implications. Not only is a fish able to recognize a human face, complete with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth, but an archerfish is able to recognize a specific human face, able to detect and pick up the various details and nuances that make each individual appearance unique. This is pretty impressive for a fish that is only supposed to have a three second memory.

So Does My Fish Know Me?

This is where it becomes difficult to decipher. There are many different species of fish in the world, with recent identified fish species topping 300,000. Of course, different species of fish will have different abilities, as well as different levels of vision. In most cases though, yes, fish are able to recognize their owners and in some cases form an attachment. Many scientists that worked on the archerfish study report the fish appearing anxious and skittish if a stranger walked into the room, compared to a loving spit of water at a familiar scientist's face.

Further, veterinarian Dr. Jessie M. Sanders reports a noticeable difference in fish behavior when examining koi pond fish. The fish will come over to their recognized owner who often offers a food treat or reward. Compare this to when Dr. Sanders walks to the koi pond dressed in blue medical scrubs. The fish instantly associate the blue scrubs with medical examinations and being caught in a net, and therefore immediately retreat to the back of the pond to evade capture. Another sign that fish are able to quickly identify a friendly face.

Does My Fish Know His Tank Mates?

Pivoting the same concept of a fish being able to recognize a human face to a fellow fish face finds very interesting results. As it turns out fish have an even better ability to recognize fellow fish and even form an attachment to them. In another study conducted by Culum Brown he is able to conclude that fish form an attachment to their fellow tank mates in about 10 to 12 days. After this period of time fish prefer to be kept with their same tank mates, compared to being put into the same tank with new individual fish.

Although different species of fish have different abilities, it turns out that guppies have the ability to recognize about 15 different individual fish. In a fish's social setting being able to recognize a familiar fish face is very important for fish so that they can learn and respect the hierarchy established in their group. Further still, fish will keep track of the individual relationships between other fish within their environment. If two fish happen to fight with one another, the fish will undoubtedly remember both the winning fish and losing fish, and will keep track of who has a higher pecking order within their community.

It can be difficult connecting with your pets when they are submersed in a water filled aquarium. Still, fish owners for years have been wondering if their fish do truly recognize them or simply become conditioned to lighting changes and feeding times. As it turns out, fish owners can rejoice that their fish have not only formed meaningful memories and attachments to their owners, but to their fellow fish tank mates as well.

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