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Guppies show sex and individual differences in the ability to inhibit behaviour


In humans, individual and sex differences have been long reported for several cognitive tasks and are at least in part due to variability in the function that inhibits behaviour (i.e. inhibitory control). Similar evidence of individual and sex differences in inhibitory abilities is also present in other vertebrates, but is scarce outside primates. Experiments on reversal learning, which requires inhibiting behaviours, suggest that this variability may exist in a teleost fish, the guppy, Poecilia reticulata. We tested this hypothesis by observing guppies in an inhibitory task. Guppies were exposed to unreachable prey inside a transparent tube for six trials. Guppies showed a marked reduction in the number of attempts to catch the prey within the first trial and also over repeated trials. We found a striking sex difference in the capacity to inhibit foraging behaviour. Males attempted to attack the prey twice as often as females and showed negligible improvement over trials. Irrespective of sex, individuals remarkably differed in their performance, with some guppies being systematically more skilled than others across the repeated trials. These results confirm that individual and sex differences in the ability to inhibit behaviour are not restricted to humans and other primates, suggesting that they might be widespread among vertebrates. Variability in inhibitory ability provides an explanation for emerging records of variability in other cognitive tasks in fish.

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We thank Andrea Margutti for his help in building the apparatuses and Giulia Trioschi for help in testing the subjects.


This work was supported by FAR 2018 and FIR 2018 Grant from University of Ferrara to TLX.

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Correspondence to Tyrone Lucon-Xiccato.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

The experiment followed the law of the country in which they were performed (Italy, D.L. 4 Marzo 2014, n. 26). The Ethical Committee of the University of Ferrara reviewed and approved all the experimental procedures (TLX 2-2018-PR). No fish showed sign of distress during the experiments. We released all the fish into stock tanks after the study for future breeding purposes.

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Lucon-Xiccato, T., Bisazza, A. & Bertolucci, C. Guppies show sex and individual differences in the ability to inhibit behaviour. Anim Cogn (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-020-01357-4

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  • Fish cognition
  • Individual differences
  • Inhibitory control
  • Sex differences