Fish are smarter than you think, a new study shows – and they feel pain, too

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Jun 19, 2014 in Rat Answers | Subscribe

When we consider thinking and feeling species, elephants and chimpanzees may come to mind, but how about your pet goldfish?

A new study released this week indicates for the first time that fish may be smarter than we ever thought – and feel pain much the same way humans do. Culum Brown, a biologist at Macquarie University in Australia, has published in the journal Animal Cognition a comprehensive review of decades of research into animal behavior that shows fish have great memories, live in complex social structures, and possibly even recognize themselves and others.

Though some research has shown that fish may have lower levels of sensory perception than humans, Brown argues that they are on par with most mammals and therefore more attention should be given to their welfare.

“Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioral and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate,” Brown explains in a press statement.

“We should therefore include fish in our ‘moral circle’ and afford them the protection they deserve.”

The implication that such lower forms of vertebrae have cognitive abilities, even if rudimentary, may be quite broad, especially when it comes to the farming industry.

The common perception that domestic animals are less brainy than their wild counterparts may be false. There appears to be no evidence of any reduced cognitive capacity in domestic animals.

Farm animals in general have been shown to have decent thinking skills and long-term memory. Domesticated goats, for example, are quick learners and can perform complex tasks which probably explains why they can adapt so quickly to new environments.

We might want to consider giving farm animals more credit when it comes to brain power. Sheep have been taught to recognize human faces, pigs to play computer games and chickens to run a thermostat for their coop.

Even rats appear to express complex cognitive skills. One new study by the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center suggests that rats feel regret after making poor decisions in the same way that humans do.

As a result, researchers have recommended that these traits be recognized and domesticated animals should be treated accordingly without cruelty, including allowing them to socialize and be surrounded by an enriching environment.

And that opens the debate over whether animals can be legally recognized as persons.

So while it’s obvious that we still have much to learn about just how smart and sentient animals are, there is no doubt that this fish study and others like it will play a crucial role in the future of debate of animal welfare and the creation of new anti-cruelty laws.

Something to consider the next time you hook that fish or forget to change the water in the living room aquarium.

(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

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