Fishes have feelings too: diving into fish myths and setting the record straight

Fishes have feelings too: diving into fish myths and setting the record straight

A guest blog by Chloe Stevens, our passionate research animals science officer (AKA animal expert!).

Fishes are interesting, intelligent, sentient beings. Unfortunately, many humans think of fishes as 'second-class citizens' of the animal kingdom. You might have heard the myth about the goldfish's 'three-second memory', or heard it said that a fish 'doesn't feel pain'.

Well, I'm here to tell you that everything you might have heard about fishes is actually - not true at all! Plus, there's so much more to these fin-tastic creatures than perhaps meets the eye... 

5 surprising skills fishes have you (probably) didn't know about

Did you know that many species of fish are actually amazingly clever? That...

  1. Some fishes can count up to five.
  2. Some recognise individual human faces.
  3. Others even use rocks as 'tools' to open shellfish!
  4. Fishes also have remarkable learning abilities - they can learn their way around complex mazes, and become faster as they receive more training.
  5. These fascinating creatures can also learn from others - for example, archerfish catch insects by spitting water at them to knock them into the water...

They can even learn to improve their aim by simply watching other fish doing it. This is no easy task - the fish have to consider the distance to their prey as well as their prey's behaviour. They then have to alter the speed of the water jet they spit to hit their very precise target!

Fish have even outperformed chimpanzees in some tests

One species of fish, the cleaner wrasse, has shown particularly impressive learning abilities. In one test, the fish were given a choice between two pieces of food. If they picked 'the correct' piece of food, they were allowed to eat the second piece too, but if they chose wrongly, the second piece of food was removed before they could eat it.

The cleaner wrasses quickly learned which piece of food was the correct one to pick. In fact, these fish performed even better at this test than chimpanzees!

And as for the 'three-second memory' claim? Well, that one's nonsense! Goldfish can actually remember events several months after they've happened. The crimson-spotted rainbowfish has been found to retain memories of events almost a year later, and salmon have been found to remember the way back to the rivers they were born in five years earlier.

More than all of this, fish are sentient (they have feelings!)

It's clear to us that fishes are sentient beings, meaning that they're individuals, capable of experiencing pain and feeling emotions such as fear. Did you know that fishes who are hooked by an angler will try to avoid returning to the area where it happened? This suggests that they felt pain and don't want a repeat experience...

Fishes are also likely to be capable of experiencing positive emotions too - many people who look after pet fish report seeing fishes playing in bubble streams or swimming up to the water surface to 'greet' them when they approach.

Evidence for fishes being sentient also comes from the 'mirror self-recognition test'. This test involves placing a mirror in front of the animal to see whether they recognise their reflections as themselves, or see them just as 'another animal'.

Manta rays and cleaner wrasses can pass this test - something only a handful of all animals have been found to do. Although failing the test does not rule out the possibility that the animal is sentient, the fact that some fishes can pass the test is strong evidence that they're sentient and self-aware.

How you can help create a world that's more fish-friendly

Sadly, some people still don't believe that fishes are sentient, can feel pain, or are intelligent. We can't read fishes' facial expressions or hear the noises they make without using special equipment, which might explain why some people struggle to empathise with fishes, or might not consider their welfare to be as important as with more familiar animals.

But fish welfare is really important too and as humans we impact on so many of their lives - as pets, on farms, and in the wild. We want to see all fishes treated with the same respect and compassion we give other animals. Here are some ways you can help us make this happen:

  1. We sometimes have pet fishes available for in our animal centres - could you provide a loving home?
  2. If you already have pet fishes, doing your research can help even the most dedicated owners level up in their care.
  3. If you eat fish, consider choosing higher welfare options.
  4. Spread the word about how amazing fishes are! Why not tell friends and family about some of your favourite fishy facts? Make sure to tag us at @RSPCA_official for your social shares!

Before we go!

Fun Fact: You may be wondering whether 'fishes' is the correct word. Well, it is, when describing more than one species of fish! However, the term 'fish' can still be used when referring to an individual, or more than one individual of the same species!

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