Scientists working at Queen Mary University of London and University of Bath have found that zebrafish are able to visually process multiple objects simultaneously, more proof that fish are cleverer than their ‘three-second memory’ reputation suggests.
Published today (Wednesday 29 October) in the journal PLoS One, this is the first study of zebrafish to identify ‘parallel visual search’ – the ability to pick out one object among many.
Visual search involves an active scan of an environment in order to look for just one object or feature. In everyday life we might relate to this in searching for an item on a supermarket shelf, looking for friends in a crowd or even identifying ‘Where’s Wally?’
Dr Matthew Parker from Queen Mary University of London, co-author of the paper, says:
“Fish don’t deserve their reputation as the stupid branch of the animal family tree, the more research we do the more we find out that they are capable of quite complex learning and problem solving. This could be because being part of a shoal requires complicated interactions with their environments and quick processing of large amounts of information.
Zebrafish are genetically surprisingly similar to humans and are incredibly useful to our studies of how genes influence addiction and psychiatric diseases, among other things.”
Given the benefits of visual search in finding a mate, spotting a predator or searching for prey, the research team suggest that doing this efficiently by ignoring distracting items should be common among species. Yet, up until this point it had only been identified in humans, primates, rats and pigeons. Without the frontal part of the brain in the neocortex, it was assumed that fish would have to examine every item, one after the other, to find the target, rather than assess the whole scene together.
Lead author from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, Dr Michael Proulx explains:
“Although vision seems simple and quick, it involves a lot of computational power to figure out where things are in a crowded environment. It is incredible to discover that the zebrafish brain, with its small size and simple structure, can seemingly find a target visually without getting slower. No matter how many items we added to the scene to distract the fish, they had no problem responding at the same speed every time."
As part of the study, 11 adult zebrafish were presented with different visual stimuli, in the form of different coloured circles on a computer monitor, over a period of six days to assess their visual processing abilities. Scientists taught zebrafish to associate food with a red disk, and then placed that disc among other distracting discs.
By uncovering the similarities between fish and humans in how they process visual information, the study now opens up other possibilities for using zebrafish for research. The discovery could pave the way for new medical advances that could help in stroke rehabilitation and in treatments for attention deficit disorders.