Safety in Numbers: Did You Know Guppies Can Do Math?

Posted by TF Oren

We're not all skilled at the same things; everybody's aptitudes are a little different.

And as it turns out, this is true of guppies as well.

According to research conducted by Tyrone Lucon-Xiccato and Marco Dadda of the University of Padova in Italy, some guppies have a more developed sense of math, while others excel at foraging.

Research has established that certain species are more capable than others when it comes to mathematical thinking. African grey parrots and chimpanzees, for example, have a more developed understanding of the concept of quantity than many other species. They use this understanding to solve problems, make decisions, and adapt to their environment.

However, very little research has explored whether or not individuals of different species also possess such capacities. Thus, Lucon-Xiccato and Dadda decided to ask this question using guppies. Never before has such a study been conducted on fish.

guppy fish in aquarium colorful background

Guppies rely on safety in numbers. They live together in shoals to increase their chances of survival. The larger a shoal, the better an individual guppy's protection against predators will be. In order to determine if individual guppies had the capacity to distinguish between the sizes of different shoals, Lucon-Xiccato and Dadda designed three quantity discrimination tests for 26 guppies living in laboratory conditions.

In one test, the researchers introduced individual guppies into a tank with no protective cover or refuge. However, already inside the tank were existing shoals of either four or six guppies. The researchers also conducted two foraging tests. One required the fish to choose between four or six pieces of food, and the other required them to distinguish between different-sized morsels.

The researchers found that some guppies do indeed possess the ability to discriminate between quantities. These individuals routinely chose the larger shoal and selected the biggest food morsels. These fish were not, however, able to exact that ability. In other words, they were not able to distinguish between numbers of food items. The researchers contend that the cumulative surface area of a shoal or food item factors into an individual guppy's pre-decision calculations.

A pair of guppies. Male and female.

The findings also indicated that some guppies were more adept at avoiding predators. These were not necessarily the same individuals that excelled in the food experiments. According to Lucon-Xiccato and Dadda, slight differences in individual aptitudes factor into the decisions that individual fish make when they search for food or try to protect themselves.

"This trade-off is likely to have a profound impact on the fitness of individuals, with some gaining advantage from their cognitive abilities that confer defense against predators, while for others it improves their foraging success," says Lucon-Xiccato.

Dadda adds, "To date, the existence of similar trade-offs in cognitive performances has received very little attention in animals, even though these constraints might be more common than previously believed."

Want to learn more? You can read the study here.

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Safety in Numbers: Did You Know Guppies Can Do Math?