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Fish in shoals 'pool their skills' to solve problems

Posted on 18/04/17 in News

By Lewis Smith

Fish have rarely won plaudits for their intelligence but we may well have under-estimated them, researchers have concluded in a study that has implications for delivery drones and human behaviour.

When swimming in shoals they are able to pool their experience, allowing them to find solutions that might well have eluded a single fish.

Experiments with three-spined sticklebacks revealed different members of a shoal took charge when their particular talents were needed.

When seeking out food was needed, fish with the knowledge of how to pinpoint it moved into a leadership role, with the others following their example.

Once a separate requirement became apparent, such as how to get access to hidden food that had already been pinpointed, fish with the knowledge of how to get at it took over leadership of the shoal.

The findings, by researchers at the University of St Andrews, are thought to have implications for understanding how animals navigate and migrate.

Professor Kevin Laland, one of the academics involved in the study, said: “There may be lessons to be learned for human behaviour too.

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“Businesses and institutions already make good use of teams with diverse skills sets, and the natural world might provide further inspiration for how these groups might be put together and organised.

“Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) researchers are focussing heavily on bio-inspired swarm robotics, and the kinds of collective information processing mechanisms uncovered by this study might potentially be deployed by other researchers designing software and behaviour rules for fleets of drones.”

It has previously been observed that larger shoals tend to be more efficient than smaller groups or individual fish but the reasons remained unclear. Researchers involved in the study, published on the Nature Ecology & Evolution website, suspected an ability to pool experiences was likely but lacked evidence.

Dr Mike Webster, of St Andrews university, said: “To tackle this question we presented shoals of stickleback fish with a two-part problem, in which they had to first find and then access some hidden food. Individual fish were either inexperienced or had experience of just one of the stages.

“We found that in shoals that comprised individuals trained in each of the stages more fish did indeed access the food, and did so more rapidly, compared with other shoal composition which only contained fish trained to one or to neither of two parts of the problem.

“Supporting our idea that leadership played a role in this, we found strong effects of having experienced members in the group, with the presence of these greatly increasing the likelihood of untrained fish completing each part of the problem.”

The researchers concluded in their report: “These findings demonstrate that animal groups can integrate individual experience to solve multi-stage problems, and have implications for our understanding of social foraging, migration and social systems.”

Photo: the three-spined stickleback, Gasterosteus aculeatus.