Fishes Have Feelings, Too

By Balcombe, Jonathan | International New York Times, May 17, 2016 | Go to article overview

Fishes Have Feelings, Too


Balcombe, Jonathan, International New York Times


If we understood how sophisticated and sentient these marine creatures were, we might treat them better.

In March, two marine biologists published a study of giant manta rays responding to their reflections in a large mirror installed in their aquarium in the Bahamas. The two captive rays circled in front of the mirror, blew bubbles and performed unusual body movements as if checking their reflection. They made no obvious attempt to interact socially with their reflections, suggesting that they did not mistake what they saw as other rays.

The scientists concluded that the mantas seemed to be recognizing their reflections as themselves.

Mirror self-recognition is a big deal. It indicates self- awareness, a mental attribute previously known only among creatures of noted intelligence like great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies.

We don't usually think of fishes as smart, let alone self-aware.

As a biologist who specializes in animal behavior and emotions, I've spent the past four years exploring the science on the inner lives of fishes. What I've uncovered indicates that we grossly underestimate these fabulously diverse marine vertebrates. The accumulating evidence leads to an inescapable conclusion: Fishes think and feel.

Because fishes inhabit vast, obscure habitats, science has only begun to explore below the surface of their private lives. They are not instinct-driven or machinelike. Their minds respond flexibly to different situations. They are not just things; they are sentient beings with lives that matter to them. A fish has a biography, not just a biology.

Those giant manta rays have the largest brains of any fish, and their relative brain-to-body size is comparable to that of some mammals. So, an exception? Then you haven't met the frillfin goby.

Up to five inches long, with prominent eyes and slightly puffy cheeks looking down on a pouting mouth, the frillfin won't strike you as an Einstein among fish. But what these humble dwellers of intertidal zones can do with their minds might cause you to reconsider.

At low tide, frillfins hide in rocky tide pools. If danger lurks - - a hungry octopus, say -- the goby will jump to a neighboring tide pool, with remarkable accuracy. How do they avoid ending up stranded on the rocks?

A series of captive experiments dating from the 1940s found something remarkable. They memorize the tide pool layout while swimming over it at high tide. They can do it in one try, and remember it 40 days later.

So much for a fish's mythic three-second memory.

If a fish's brain can achieve that, what else might it be capable of?

Tool use was once thought the sole province of humans, but the behavior has now been discovered in a wide range of animals, including fishes. The enterprising orange-dotted tusk fish, a species native to the western Pacific, first uncovers a clam by blowing water on the sand, then carries the mollusk in its mouth to a nearby rock and smashes the clam on the rock with a series of deft head flicks.

This is more than tool use. By using a logical sequence of behaviors, involving several distinct stages, the tusk fish also shows itself to be a planner.

Many fishes hunt cooperatively, as lions do. Last year, I watched from a seaside balcony as a phalanx of predatory fishes made coordinated lunges at a school of herrings they had trapped along a Puerto Rican shoreline. In their desperation to escape, some of the herrings temporarily beached themselves.

On reefs, collaborative hunting has developed an astonishing degree of sophistication. …

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