For centuries people have argued whether fish and animals in general are intelligent or if their behavior is instinctual. We need to separate facts from fiction and expose the truth of this controversial topic.
What even is intelligence? Sometimes, the root of disagreement on a topic tends to come from the misunderstanding of a part of that topic. If we all can agree on one set definition, perhaps this wouldn’t be so controversial. Let’s use a widely accepted google definition, “Intelligence: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.” In other words, if you can learn and be more than what you’re born with, you are intelligent.
Over time, it has been proven that some animals such as dolphins and elephants are capable of experiencing emotions and problem solving. On the other hand, people are also intrigued by the problem solving abilities of the Octopus and label them intelligent. They are mollusks. They’re related to snails and people call fish unintelligent because they have “simple brains.”
The usage of tools clearly shows some degree of intelligence because it is a learned behavior. One of many fish that can use tools is the Blackspot Tuskfish. According to National Geographic, these fish will smash shellfish on rocks to get the meat inside.
Stingrays also demonstrated their problem solving ability in an experiment conducted by Dr. Michael Kuba from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, according to BBC Earth News UK. In Kuba’s experiment, the rays had to get a piece of food in a tank that had a jet stream of water. After some time, they were able to conclude that stingrays were able to problem solve, as the stingrays manipulated their bodies to create a flow of water that moves food towards them. The rays weren’t able to manipulate the water current the first time, it was a trial and error process.
Fish don’t only display their ability to learn through tools. For example, domesticated fish learn that humans in general give food and will come up to the aquarium glass whenever people pass by. One may argue that this is only because they are domesticated, but even wild caught fish will eventually learn that you give them food.
With personal experience that is also backed up by many forums, it is safe to say that Oscars show stress by laying on the bottom of the aquarium. For example, they will just lay down during a water change, getting introduced to a new tank, or meeting a new fish. This is known as “sulking” and surprisingly, many fish do it. Most fish including Oscars will even slightly change color or lose color to show their distress.
But even after all of this evidence, some people just cut all of it down by saying that it’s instinctual. These people claim that they don’t learn things, but that they are born with it. And the signs of emotions are also all “programmed” into their genes. My response to this is then maybe humans are not intelligent as well. Humans smile when they are happy, cry when they are sad, and yell when they are angry. They are basically saying that these actions of people don’t have any emotional value.
Of course fish won’t be as intellectual as humans and many mammals, but they definitely have some of it in them. Besides, all they’ve got is a mouth. No arms or legs, no limbs. So they’ve got their limitations so when it comes to deciding things about them, they must be judged accordingly.