Your pet fish recognizes your faceStaff writer ▼ | June 8, 2016
A species of tropical fish has been shown to be able to distinguish between human faces. It is the first time fish have demonstrated this ability.
Surprising discovery The fish were highly accurate
First author Cait Newport, Marie Curie Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, said: "Being able to distinguish between a large number of human faces is a surprisingly difficult task, mainly due to the fact that all human faces share the same basic features.
All faces have two eyes above a nose and mouth, therefore to tell people apart we must be able to identify subtle differences in their features. If you consider the similarities in appearance between some family members, this task can be very difficult indeed.
"It has been hypothesized that this task is so difficult that it can only be accomplished by primates, which have a large and complex brain. The fact that the human brain has a specialized region used for recognizing human faces suggests that there may be something special about faces themselves.
To test this idea, we wanted to determine if another animal with a smaller and simpler brain, and with no evolutionary need to recognize human faces, was still able to do so."
The researchers found that fish, which lack the sophisticated visual cortex of primates, are nevertheless capable of discriminating one face from up to 44 new faces. The research provides evidence that fish (vertebrates lacking a major part of the brain called the neocortex) have impressive visual discrimination abilities.
In the study, archerfish—a species of tropical fish well known for its ability to spit jets of water to knock down aerial prey - were presented with two images of human faces and trained to choose one of them using their jets.
The fish were then presented with the learned face and a series of new faces and were able to correctly choose the face they had initially learned to recognize. They were able to do this task even when more obvious features, such as head shape and colour, were removed from the images.
The fish were highly accurate when selecting the correct face, reaching an average peak performance of 81% in the first experiment (picking the previously learned face from 44 new faces) and 86% in second experiment (in which facial features such as brightness and colour were standardized). ■