Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Wednesday, 17 June 2009 11:45 UK

'Genius' claim for sticklebacks

Nine-spined stickleback fish
Sticklebacks are found in fresh and marine water environments in Europe, Asia, and North America, and feed on shrimps and fish larvae

Sticklebacks could be the "geniuses" of the fish world, after experts found the breed displays a sophisticated learning technique never before seen in animals.

They have found the way fish learn could be much closer to the human way of thinking than previously thought.

The St Andrews University study shows nine-spined sticklebacks can watch others to make better choices.

The ability to pick the best food patch by comparing how successful others are has not been shown before in animals.

They tested the reactions of 270 nine-spined stickleback fish and found many of them could compare the behaviour of other sticklebacks with their own experience and choose which fish to copy in order to find more food.

"It's remarkable that a form of learning found to be optimal in humans is exactly what these fish do
Professor Kevin Laland
St Andrews University

The study, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, authors say their findings suggest the fish might have a capability known as, "hill-climbing" strategy which humans have but has not yet been found in other animals.

Co-author Professor Kevin Laland from the school of biology at St Andrews University said: "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."

Researchers at St Andrews and Durham Universities put the fish in an aquarium and gave them worms from two feeders at either end of the tank.

They initially preferred the feeder that was giving them more worms. Researchers then fed the fish more worms from the second feeder at the other end of the tank. The first group of fish were allowed to watch other fish feed before feeding themselves.

About 75% of fish were 'clever' enough to know from watching the other fish that the feeder they had previously found to give them fewer worms was now giving out more and went for the second feeder.

Food preferences

However, if the fish observed that the feeders were giving roughly the same amount of food they did not copy the other fish and stuck with their own choice.

The scientists say the findings contribute to the understanding of brain evolution and the types of brain required for certain cognitive functions, both in humans and animals.

Lead author Dr Jeremy Kendal from Durham University's anthropology department, said: "Lots of animals observe more experienced peers and that way gain foraging skills, develop food preferences, and learn how to evade predators.

"But it is not always a recipe for success to simply copy someone.

"Animals are often better off being selective about when and who they copy.

"These fish are obviously not at all closely related to humans, yet they have this human ability to only copy when the pay off is better than their own.



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