Fish are smarter than you think!

by DavalosMcCormack on May 28, 2009

Have you ever snorkeled?  Well, living in Northern California it is not an easy sport to  take up.  One, the water in San Francisc0, where we live is frekkin’ cold; and two, you can’t see 2 feet in front of you underwater.  However, we were in Kauai for vacation recently and had a fantastic opportunity to observe fish and other sea animals as we snorkeled in the crystal clear waters off the island.

Our guide took us out to a special area just off the reefs where the fish had set up a barber shop for greenback turtles.  I’m telling you these fish set up a business and their clients were the turtles who were actually waiting in line for their turn!  Take a number!It was our last day on the island and our friends had arranged for us to take a ride on an outrigger canoe so we could experience snorkeling and sailing off the island as a goodbye gesture.

Let me say, that this was a wonderful way to say Aloha to the island.   Our guide took us out beyond the reefs, about a half a mile from the shore where he had spotted a group of giant greenback turtles.   We were so excited to have a chance to see these wonderful creatures close up!

Now, I’m not the best swimmer but snorkling isn’t really swimming, it’s just floating on the top of the water with your mask on while you breath through a tube.  The hardest thing about it is to remember to breathe through your mouth, not your nose, and that wasn’t so easy – although I have dated some guys who my roommate at the time used to  describe as “mouth-breathers”, but that’s really none of your business.

Anyway, we were floating on the warm Pacific ocean off Kauai, peering down on to the reef seeing anemones, fish and beautiful coral formations, when the guide got our attention and asked us if we could see the turtles.  “No,” we said, “we don’t see them!”  “They’re right under you!” he said.

Oh, my gosh!  I looked down again and there, about 10 feet away were 5 big…(I mean 4 feet across the shell) greenback turtles!  As I looked closer, one turtle looked like he had a yellow ruffle around his neck, sort of like a clown collar. A steadier look showed that the collar was made up of about 15 to 20  yellow and black striped fish which were nibbling at the neck of the turtle.  The fish were eating the algae around the turtle’s neck!  It was a kind of barber shop where the turtles got a little cleaning and the fish got a little snack.

But that’s not what was amazing,  what was amazing was that there was another turtle close by, just waiting his turn!  As the fish cleaned up the first turtle,  the second one came ever-so-gently forward and at a precise moment, all the fish shifted, at the same time to the second turtle’s neck.  It was the barbershop of the sea!

So of course I wondered, what makes these fish so smart and how do the turtles know when they need a little freshening up?  Of course, you know I looked it up, right?…So here’s what I found out.  There is a recent study by Dr Mike Webster of St Andrews University who has discovered that  fish show a high level of intelligence when they are in danger.  My friends, they make decisions and they think!

Dr. Webster says that a lot of people think that fish, for instance, goldfish have a 3 second memory and then start remembering all over again, but Dr. Webster did a few tests to find out how fish decide what to do when they are in danger.  Dr. Webster thinks that fish are possibly as smart as rats or mice .

One of the experiments Dr. Webster did was to see how minnows use shared learning techniques to escape from predators, if there is danger nearby, the minnows would check out how the other minnows are acting and take their cue from them. The experiment proved that fish rely on social learning when they make decisions about foraging for food, or the best way to escape danger.

Hence, the fish I was observing had set up a little foraging  stand which served the turtles very well. They got nourishment and were not afraid of the giant turtle and the turtles stepped out of the barbershop looking like a million when the fish finished with them!

Dr Webster said it used to be thought that sharing learning was a uniquely human trait, but now we have evidence that fish may be smarter and more capable of learning than we think.  He believes fish are still evolving, why they may set up manicure shops soon!

Wait a minute!  I just read that there are shops in Japan that use fish to nibble off dead skin on your legs and toes.  Really, I did!

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