Do fish physically feel? Apparently, studies on this weren’t done until the ’90s. I admit to being surprised that no one had been curious about this until vegetarianism become common. In any case, the answer is: Yes, fish feel. Little fishie faces don’t show emotions, but they can certainly feel pain. When fish have external parasites they start “flashing,” scratching themselves on whatever they can.
Saltwater fish can hang out at cleaner shrimp stations and get a once-over by an extremely talented little crustacean. His precision at removing parasites, cleaning wounds and removing bits of rock from gills is remarkable. Shrimp also do a great job on cuticles and splinters on people. I’ve even seen pictures of scuba divers getting their teeth cleaned by shrimp…but that’s a bit much for me.
Back to the point. A study done on freshwater danios had them live in a complex tank separated with a maze and divided into two distinct landscapes. One area was planted, the other barren. The fish hung out only in the planted area. Then half the fish were injected with an acid solution, the other half with saline. They all continued to hang out in the planted area until the scientists dissolved a painkiller into the barren area. Lo and behold, the fish feeling the pain of the acid solution went for the painkiller area. Those feeling no pain stayed home. Conclusion? I’m voting for “fish feel pain.”
But do fish experience emotions? Can they feel happy, sad, or angry? That’s the question. I’ve seen fish try to assist other sick fish in swimming and hover around protecting them. I’ve witnessed bonded pairs of fish lose a mate and stop eating. I myself have fish that enjoy being petted, and show “jealousy” if other fish come around. Is it a learned behavior due to my feeding them? I doubt it. Treats weren’t given by this pettor to reward the pettees for coming to be petted.
Can fish communicate? No doubt. The cleaner shrimp I talked about earlier? The fish signals his need for a cleaning by changing colors and showing where it needs help. If that’s not communication, what is?
I learned that certain fish just NEED a buddy. Alone, they would eat, but just a little. They would swim, but not much. Alone, they just don’t show normal behavior. But give them a friend, and almost instantly it’s a different fish, eating and swimming with enthusiasm, and generally being a much happier fish.
Some people believe fish have a very short memory – I think I heard three minutes or three seconds. Bologna. I’ve seen fish recognize people who cared for them years ago. Divers have numerous stories of fish recognizing and responding to them for as long as 20 years in a row. And some tests showed fish figuring out mazes and remembering the path. There have been many interesting studies done and I encourage you to read some of them.
The reason behind this article is not to turn you into vegans to keep you from eating fish. No, the point is to encourage you to take a different approach to setting up aquariums. I’ve said it a thousand times: Do your research! Support your local fish store where the people helping you have oceans worth of icthyological insights.
Shawn Chase is the owner of Mountains to Sea Aquariums at Suite 103, 1446 Brevard Road, Asheville. She is also has a tankful of fishy expertise and is a frequent PetGazette contributor. Find her store on Facebook or call 828 633-6624.