One of the most delightful aspects of keeping any kind of pet is feeling the bond that comes with being recognized by them. Fish typically aren’t known for their intelligence. A dog unquestionably recognizes us and treats other people differently.
But do fish recognize their owners? It turns out the answer is…Maybe!
Many Fish Don’t Recognize Their Owners
There is a serious lack of scientific research on this question. While there is a ton of anecdotal evidence out there, it can be hard to separate truth from fiction unless you happen to own the fish in question.
That said, certain fish are undeniably more intelligent than others. Large predators like Datnoids and fish that live in complex social hierarchies like Cichlids tend to be the smartest aquarium fish around.
Other fish, such as Tetras, Livebearers, Goldfish and Bettas, live simpler social lives. While they can probably recognize individuals, you are simply well outside of their social mental map. Except as the food provider, of course!
One of the best ways to see this social behavior in Bettas is to provide a special aquarium mirror. Since Bettas don’t have some of the higher self-recognition skills found in certain birds and mammals, they treat their reflection as a challenger to be attacked!
There are other ways to recognize the presence of their owner that doesn’t include faces, however. Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) once trained to respond to a human voice announcing food, can remember the cue up to five years after the sound is no longer present!
Goldfish have also been shown to recognize the color of a feeding tube up to a year after its last use. Fish have a very strong memory for where their food comes from. But can they tell the difference between you, their owner, and another person in the room?
Some Fish Can Recognize Their Owners
As mentioned earlier, certain fish, mostly large predators and highly social fish are more likely to be able to recognize their owners.
They need their big brains and excellent eyesight to hide from and outsmart their prey. And in the case of Cichlids they spend a lot of time remembering who is in charge, who is a potential mate, and who is lower on the totem pole or a challenger.
As a result, they occasionally can add “specific thing that arrives before the food” to their list of mental priorities. Other fish that are infamous for being social towards their owners include Maroon Clownfish, Pufferfish, Peacock Bass, Flowerhorns, Giant Gouramis, and Arowanas, to name a few.
A recent study on the ability of the Archerfish (genus Toxotidae) to recognize faces is making waves in the aquarium world. These fish are found in South Asia and Oceana.
In nature, they use their highly developed eyesight to hunt for insects crawling on branches near the water line. They can spit water with a high degree of accuracy to knock bugs down into the water to be eaten.
Scientists studying the pattern recognition abilities of these fish found that they could be trained to recognize specific human faces. They were taught to spit at a target face that would reward them with food.
Even when presented with a variety of additional faces they chose the right one with an 81% success rate. And when the images were converted to black and white to make patterns stand out more clearly, the success rate went up to 86%!
So it’s clear that some fish can recognize faces at least, though hopefully they won’t respond by spitting water whenever you’re around!
Fish get a bad rap when it comes to intelligence. For centuries people generally thought that fish were little robots that were unfeeling and incapable of pain, pleasure, emotions, or memories.
However in recent years, we’ve come to discover that fish have quite a rich living experience. Not only can they recognize different members of a group and their owners (sometimes). But many can count, can remember where they were last attacked by a predator, and can learn how to escape traps like nets and mazes.
Believe it or not, there are even some fish that can use tools! Something we usually assume is a human-only quality.
Some of the most intelligent, largest brained fish are actually aquarium species! Elephant-nose Fish like Gnathonemus petersii are occasionally found in the hobby as intriguing oddballs.
They use their snout-like jaw projection (delightfully named the Schnauzenorgan to sense worms and other buried prey in soft river bottoms. But how do they find animals they can’t see?
As it turns out, Elephant-nose Fish are weakly electric. Unlike Electric Eels, they don’t shock or stun their prey. Instead, they use electroreceptors that coat the Schnauzenorgan to sense their muscular contractions.
And in order to process all of the data they take up from their environment, Elephant-nose Fish have some of the largest brain to body ratios in the animal kingdom! Most of this growth resides in the cerebellum, which is greatly enlarged.
The cerebellum is the seat of attention, coordination, and movement, so it makes sense given the high sensitivity to their environment these fish have!
There are absolutely some fish that can recognize their owners. But the majority of fish probably can’t. They know that a person-shaped being arriving means food is about to arrive. But there’s no guarantee that they can tell the difference between you and your roommate or relative.
Most of the evidence we have for fish recognizing their owners is anecdotal. They see us more often than anyone else so it seems only natural that we assume they recognize us!
If you really want to know for certain, you’ll have to bring in a new face or two and see how they respond. If they get just as excited by a new person, don’t be too disappointed. Not all fish can be as smart as a Cichlid or Archerfish. On an Elephant-nose, for that matter!