Getting Social Underwater

 A coral grouper (Plectropomus leopardus) being cleaned by a cleaner shrimp (Urocaridella antonbruunii), in the Maldives. --- Image by © Jason Isley - Scubazoo/Science Faction/Corbis

A coral grouper (Plectropomus leopardus) being cleaned by a cleaner shrimp (Urocaridella antonbruunii), in the Maldives. — Image by © Jason Isley – Scubazoo/Science Faction/Corbis

Let’s talk social behavior. We know much about human relations and the social activities of animals like the chimpanzee. But how about underwater? Yes, the waters, too, are filled with social interactions if rapport between coral groupers and giant moray eels are anything to go by. Several studies have followed how the duo teams up to hunt and have their own ‘code’ of vigorous shimmying, head-stands and head-shaking to communicate about prey. Now, while gestures are commonplace among humans and are expected of intelligent animals like monkeys and dogs, how do fish manage this complex communication with their tiny brains? Redouan Bshary may be the man with the answers.

The ‘social brain’ theory argues that primates evolved brains that are large for their body size to manage their unusually complex social systems. Only primate brains, the theory says, have the depth of cognitive analysis necessary to cooperate, deceive and solve other problems in a social world. Bshary disagreed. Maybe, he thought, these particular social behaviors in primates were also learnt by simple association and did not require the extra computing power of their big brains. “I think primatologists tend to make big claims because they look up the evolutionary chain and compare the primates’ behaviors to humans, instead of looking down the evolutionary chain to see if the phenomena also existed in lower species,” he says.

Now that intelligence in fish is being validated, the question shifts to what processes these underwater creatures use to arrive at “lending a helping fin” or rather communicating to collaborate. With its few nerve connections, a fish’s brain is much simpler than that of humans and animals but is it possible that it uses its cognitive capabilities very efficiently? If yes, it may mark the decline of “primate chauvinism” and start a conversation on more species owning and using specific types of smart intelligence.

Read Bshary’s argument on fish intelligence here.

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