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Counting Fish

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Fishes can count small numbers says a new study. Researchers are training the animals to use blue and yellow colors as codes for the commands “add one” and “subtract one,” respectively. Fish have the capacity for simple arithmetic.

researchers at the University of Bonn adopted the design of a similar experiment conducted in bees. They focused on bony cichlids and cartilaginous stingray which the lab uses to study fish cognition.

In the training phase, the scientists showed a fish in a tank an image of up to five squares, circles, and triangles that were all either blue or yellow. The animals had 5 seconds to memorize the number and color of the shapes; then a gate opened, and the fish had to choose between two doors: one with an additional shape and the other with one fewer shape. If the shapes in the original image were blue, head for the door with one extra shape; if they were yellow, go for the door with one fewer. Choosing the correct door earned the fish a food reward: pellets for cichlids, and earthworms, shrimp, or mussels for stingrays.

Only six of the eight cichlids and four of the eight stingrays successfully completed their training. But those that made it through testing performed well above chance.

But both species found subtraction slightly more difficult than addition on all the tests. The scientists also ensured that the animals weren’t just memorizing patterns. For this researchers mixed in new tests varying the size and number of the shapes.

Other animals, including parrots and bees, have demonstrated a similar aptitude for working with numbers. Despite not having the brain structures humans rely on for cognition, they manage to match our basic arithmetic skills.

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