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Jennifer Nichols

Environmental Change Enhances Cognitive Abilities in Fish

Better understanding of cognitive abilities and how to increase them in animals sheds light on
understanding how to do the same for humans. Scientists study cognitive abilities in humans and
animals to better understand what brings out success in species and how the best survive.
Cognitive abilities are vital to evolutionary success. In other animals that have been studied,
including some bird species has shown that a change in environment or stimulated enrichment
has shown birds have increased their cognitive abilities. While scientists have studied cognitive
abilities and factors affecting it in many animals, fish have not been studied as significantly.
For this science experiment researchers wanted to see if fish were similar to birds, and other
animals, in seeing if a change in environment affected the fishs cognitive abilities. Therefore
they chose to study fish in varying environments because there is so little experimental evidence
of it. It is important for scientists to explore the minds of many different species to better
understand our own minds and behaviors. This research is underway because it brings
understanding to environmentally altering events and its life changing effect on cognition and
The researchers for this particular study are trying to apprehend if fish, like other animals
studied, have improved cognitive flexibility when put under varying environmental situations.
These scientists are experimenting to prove the point that when environment is varied early on in
life, cognitive abilities increase. This topic is of value because it sheds light on what keeps
species from progressing and evolving. Because evolution is one of the core themes of life it is
important to understand what causes animals to evolve and in this case the possibility of
evolving with better cognitive ability. Those creatures that have increased cognitive capability
are more likely to reproduce and survive. While this study may not directly seem to affect
society in todays world it is important in terms of better understanding the world around us. It
sheds light on natural selection and how understanding even fish better we can understand
humans better. Scientists could apply this to the human world and change how children are
taught or how to bring greater intellectual success to people. In this scientific experiment the
researchers hypothesis is that if they change the African cichlid fishs environment at a juvenile
age, such a change will positively affect cognitive ability.
Materials and Methods
When it came down to testing their hypothesis the scientists did a few different experiments on
the African Chichlid fish. They separated two groups of the fish at a pre-adult stage of life and
in one group varied the fishs food quantities while giving the other group a constant and
predictable amount of food. Once the two groups of fish reached adulthood they compared the
groups by giving them a task where they tested cognitive abilities. They did this by having the
fish trained to do certain tasks and repeat them when they reached adulthood, one year later. This
training consisted of presenting a fish with a red cross and a blue square on both sides of the fish
tank. In front of one or the other cues the experimenter dropped a pellet of food. Once the fish
had reached adulthood they tested the fish again with the same test except they placed the pellet
of food out of sight to the fish. They also masked the food so it could not be traced with smell.
The techniques used in this experiment were a control group, experimental group, and
observation. They also did various training of the fish to see how they tested. For example,
throughout the training in the juvenile stage the researchers took down information about how
long it took the fish to get the food and how many times the fish successfully completed the test.
They compared these results to the similar test given during adulthood to see if changes
occurred. This demonstrates how measurements were made through observation.
The results from the experiments proved their hypothesis correct. The fish group that had a
changed environmental feeding schedule outperformed their counterparts that lived in a
regulated feeding schedule environment. They measured this by the fishs performances on the
tasks they were previously trained on when in their juvenile stage. They compared measurements
of time and success of the fish from previous testing a year earlier. On reporting of the
experiment it was said, In conclusion we show for the first time that a single change in food
availability early in life can enhance life-long learning abilities. Hence our study provides
experimental support for the hypothesis that selection favors higher cognitive abilities in
unpredictable or changing environments. (Kotrschall,,2010)
The researchers did take precautions to make sure their tests were as accurate as they could
make it. They did this by being aware of how amount of food given or taken away may have an
effect on the fishs cognitive performances. They studied groups that were given smaller
amounts of food compared to larger amounts in the varied groups of fish. Surprisingly they
found that the amount of food given didnt play a role in cognitive performance in the long run.
Scientists did think that giving more food to one group may give them a greater advantage but it
turned out that food amounts didnt matter, just the fact that food was altered.
The results from this study indicate that changing an environmental factor in early development,
such as food, can alter cognitive abilities. The scientists hypothesis about changing food in the
environment would increase cognitive ability and flexibility proved correct against the group of
fish that lived in a stable food environment. In the end, they did prove that like other animals,
disrupting environment in juvenile stages proved helpful for flexibility and learning for them
later. In the text scientist Taborsky summed this up by saying, Environmental conditions during
development may trigger changes in morphology, physiology, or behavior, which can confer an
adaptive advantage later in life... (Kotrschall, et. al.,2010).
This sort of developmental learning is crucial for a lifetime of success for a fish and any other
animal; therefore making it a significant study. The scientists didnt believe they needed more
information or experimentation but in the scientific world these things never hurt to help improve
experiments credibility. One limitation in the study was that they assumed the fish werent
preforming these tasks based on memory. While they did try to keep this from happening by
doing a few different tests on the fish, they didnt show a very convincing case of this. It would
also be more impressive if the scientists took on a variety of fish breeds to try this same
procedure on. In conclusion, Kotrschall and the other scientists who completed this project on
improving cognition on the African Chichlid fish proved their hypothesis correct, and in doing so
have paved a promising path on how environmental changes early in life can positively alter
cognitive abilities.