Are Goldfish Smart? (Goldfish Intelligence)

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Fish are often considered to be primitive beings, but they are constantly evolving, and their diversity has given rise to a great variety of behaviors. Goldfish, Carassius auratus, originate from the crucian carp, from which they were domesticated, and are commonly kept as pets.

This species is often considered to be lacking in intelligence and as a result, often finds itself in bland, unstimulating conditions. This article explores goldfish behavior and cognition to answer the question: are goldfish smart?

Social Intelligence

Group of goldfish
Research on goldfish social intelligence has found conflicting results: some studies have found that goldfish learn more slowly in a group, while others have shown that goldfish learn better in a group than individually. Watts / CC BY 2.0

There is contradictory evidence for social learning in goldfish. For example, one study found that watching conspecifics performing a task actually slowed down the learning process. In contrast, another study determined that goldfish learned better in a group than they did individually.

Shoaling in goldfish enables them to forage more efficiently, which suggests an element of social facilitation, whereby individuals copy the behaviors shown by their conspecifics. However, social interactions do not seem as prevalent in goldfish as in other fish species, suggesting that the social intelligence of this species may be relatively low.


Spatial Cognition

Goldfish in tank
Studies have found that when goldfish are exposed to a new environment, they split it into sections and venture section by section, which requires a good sense of direction and the ability to memorize the topography. Kai Schreiber / CC BY-SA 2.0

When goldfish are exposed to a new environment, they display exploratory behavior. An interesting study into this exploration has found that goldfish compartmentalize the new place, venturing into small sections a bit at a time. This behavior requires the goldfish to be able to remember the topography of the environment, as well as have a good sense of direction.

Research has been performed in which goldfish are expected to navigate mazes; interestingly, it is thought that individuals do not rely on their visual perception of their surroundings, but instead undergo kinesthetic learning to determine the route. Because humans are very visual animals, it can be difficult to perceive intelligence in animals that learn in different ways – but this does not mean it isn’t present.


Problem-Solving

Goldfish with mouth open
Goldfish are known for having an impressive sense of taste, as they have a palatal organ that allows them to distinguish food from particles of the substrate! Kurayba / CC BY-SA 2.0

Goldfish can be trained to discriminate between colors; for example, in one study they learned to identify a blue target amongst red, yellow, and green targets. Not only does this species have good vision, but its sense of taste is also impressive: individuals possess a palatal organ that allows them to distinguish food from particles of the substrate as they forage.

Experiments with goldfish have found that some aspects of their learning are slower than that seen in rats – for example, they cannot learn an alternating sequence in which the outcome of one trial depends on the outcome of the previous trial – this would suggest that there are limitations to their capacity to remember past events and alter their behavior depending on these. However, a study into the ability of goldfish to determine different shapes found that they can discriminate between 90-degree rotations of images, relying on horizontal and vertical components of shapes to do so. As with many animals, goldfish have very particular strengths and weaknesses!

In an incredible study examining the navigational abilities of animals, scientists trained goldfish to move a robotic ‘car’, which was essentially a tank on wheels. The fish managed to move the vehicle towards a target, a task which required them to perform multiple complex tasks, including reorienting the vehicle if it went off course.


Conclusions – Are Goldfish Smart?

As discussed in this article, goldfish possess a variety of cognitive abilities and are especially talented when it comes to navigation and spatial awareness. They are less apt to learn socially but are capable of problem-solving and learning new skills. Thus, goldfish can be considered smart, and should not be underestimated!

Charlotte P
About the author

Charlotte P

I'm passionate about wildlife and ecology and hold a degree in Zoology and a masters in Clinical Animal Behaviour. I'm fascinated by the ways animals adapt to their environments and cope with challenges. I am scientifically minded and dedicate much of my time to reading and research into my subject areas.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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