Environmental Change Enhances Cognitive Abilities in Fish

Abstract: Flexible or innovative behavior is advantageous, especially when animals are exposed to frequent and unpredictable environmental perturbations. Improved cognitive abilities can help animals to respond quickly and adequately to environmental dynamics, and therefore changing environments may select for higher cognitive abilities. Increased cognitive abilities can be attained, for instance, if environmental change during ontogeny triggers plastic adaptive responses improving the learning capacity of exposed individuals. We tested the learning abilities of fishes in response to experimental variation of environmental quality during ontogeny. Individuals of the cichlid fish Simochromis pleurospilus that experienced a change in food ration early in life outperformed fish kept on constant rations in a learning task later in life—irrespective of the direction of the implemented change and the mean rations received. This difference in learning abilities between individuals remained constant between juvenile and adult stages of the same fish tested 1 y apart. Neither environmental enrichment nor training through repeated neural stimulation can explain our findings, as the sensory environment was kept constant and resource availability was changed only once. Instead, our results indicate a pathway by which a single change in resource availability early in life permanently enhances the learning abilities of animals. Early perturbations of environmental quality may signal the developing individual that it lives in a changing world, requiring increased cognitive abilities to construct adequate behavioral responses.
Published Mar. 6, 2012 1:33 PM