Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Recognising Nemo

Credit: Stephen Coburn/adobe

Credit: Stephen Coburn/adobe

By Ulrike Siebeck & Guy Wallis

Recent studies are helping to dispel the myth that fish have a 3-second memory. In fact, some species of reef fish can even recognise human faces.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Do you remember Dory, the well-meaning surgeonfish with the 1-minute memory in the film Finding Nemo? Although the film portraits her as unusual, in many ways she plays to the common conception that fish only have a very limited memory. One joke even concludes that there’s no need to worry about the fish tank becoming boring because every time the fish turn around they think: “Oh, that’s nice, haven’t seen that before!”

But like a lot of our preconceptions, there’s precious little evidence to support this notion. Indeed, goldfish have been tested on some tasks and can recall them months and even years later.

In fact, work in our lab has revealed that some species of reef fish can recognise faces belonging to other individuals of their own and other species. How is this possible in an animal with a 3-second memory and a very small brain?

Our findings challenge assumptions about the limited capabilities of the fish brain. Beyond that, they are informing us about what is, and what is not, special about the human cerebral cortex.

So why our special interest in face recognition? Many neuroscientists argue that the human brain possesses innate, specialised face discrimination circuits that are central to basic face recognition tasks. The task is complicated by the presence of other very similar-looking objects – other faces – and made even harder...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.