You are on page 1of 5




Taya Gordon

Environmental Changes Enhance Cognitive Abilities in Fish

Scientists know and accept that the ability for an organism to adapt to its environment is crucial
in the success of its evolution. An animal will change its behavior, physiology, or morphology to
have a greater chance to survive. This includes having a greater cognitive ability to make better
decisions. Scientists have concluded that changes in environmental stimuli create a change in
cognitive abilities. They have shown this by observing animals being put into different and
complex environments. For example they conclude that birds with a more complex song have
higher cognitive abilities. Birds that inhabit constantly changing environments sing more
complex songs than birds with a constant environment. The ones with more difficult and
changing environment have a higher cognitive function so they can react more efficiently and
think more flexible. While animals that live in a constant and stable environment do not adapt to
have better cognitive functions. They chose to research this topic because they believe that, An
experimental evaluation of this hypothesis has been hitherto lacking (Kotrscha, Taborsky.
2010). The elaboration, experimenting, and conclusion on a hypothesis such as this can be very
beneficial to not only the scientific community but the general public as well. Proper
experimentation and conclusion can help benefit our understanding on the adaptability of
animals, and the human race. In this experiment they are trying to prove or support the statement


that animals will take in information from stimuli through their senses, retain that information
and use it to better their behavior and survival rate by adjusting to their environment.
Material and Methods: General Experimental Methods
The researchers chose to conduct an experiment on African Cichlids Simochromis Pleuropilus, a
maternally mouthbrooding cichlid inhabiting Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. They raised 130
fish separated in Plexiglas tanks with a ratio of 20 fish to 1 tank. Each tank had a layer of sand at
the bottom, a flower pot to serve as shelter, and a filter. The fish were gathered from seven
clutches and were distributed proportionally over different treatments. There were four original
groups, and two different feeding conditions that they experimented on. Nhh, where N stands
for not switched, and hh stands for a high food ration in both early and late life. Nll, where
rations were not switched and ll stands for low rations in early and late life. Shl, where S
stands for switched and hl stands for high food rations early in life to low rations later. Finally
Slh, where the food rations were switched and lh stands for switched from low early in life to
high later. These diet switched were done when the cichlids were either at 77 days old or 133
days old, both stages still in a juvenile phase. After changing their diets they were all give the
same food rations until they all reached about the same body mass.
Learning Tests
At first they conditions the fish to relate a certain visual cue with food, and were then tested on
how many correct trials they performed when presented with the cue. The first series of tests
were conducted at 172 days while they were still receiving different food rations. The second
series was done at 1 year old when the fish was an adult when all of the fish were the same mass.


They were tested in individual tanks. All tanks were given a test apparatus where an 8cm
diameter PVC pipe was placed in the tank so the entrance faced the front of the tank. The flower
pot was removed and replace with the filter on two 5 cm high granite cubes that provided a
crevice for the fish. During conditioning two cues, a red cross and a blue square were presented
to the fish simultaneously on each side of the tube outside of the tank. A fish hiding under the
filter could not see both cues. An experimenter then dropped a food pellet in front of the reward
stimulus; a slate of Plexiglas that separated the fish from the tube was moved so the fish could
enter the choice area and eat the food. Half of the sample were chosen to be conditioned the red
cross while the other half were conditioned to the blue square. These trials were repeated twice a
day for 7 days; the side of the positive stimuli was determined by throwing a die.
To test the fish they followed the same procedures as conditioning them, but the food pellet was
dropped inside the tube, and was invisible to the fish. To rule out the fish using Olfactory cues
they were tested on whether they would leave the shelter without presented stimuli. In 12 tests no
fish entered the choice area within 12 minutes. While testing the experimenter hid behind a wall
observing through peephole. They then recorded the time it took the fish to leave the shelter and
enter the choice area, and recorded the visual cue chosen by the fish. If the fish did not enter the
choice area within 12 min, the stimuli was removed and tried again 2-3 hrs later. If the fish still
did not enter the choice area on the second trial within 12min it was treated as a missing value.
After tested the pellet was left for the fish to eat. Juveniles were tested once a day for 6
consecutive days. One year later adults were tested once a day for 10 consecutive days.


Results for test of adult and juvenile learning ability were very similar. Neither the amount of
food before or after the switched was significant to the number of correct choices made. But, the
interaction of early and late treatment was very significant. They concluded that fish that diets
were switched outperformed those whose diet remained constant. The switch from low to high or
high to low did not matter, the switch did.
A larger population would be more effective in coming to a broader conclusion. A limitation that
they did not prepare for in the beginning was the original cichlids dying. Their results do support
their hypothesis. They have gathered enough data to conclude that by changing the fishes
environment it enhances cognitive ability that can be sustained over a lifetime.


Alexander Kotrschal, Barbara Taborsky. (2010). Environmental Change Enhances Cognitive
Abilities in Fish. Retrieved from