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Understanding fish cognition: a review and appraisal of current practices


With over 30,000 recognized species, fishes exhibit an extraordinary variety of morphological, behavioural, and life-history traits. The field of fish cognition has grown markedly with numerous studies on fish spatial navigation, numeracy, learning, decision-making, and even theory of mind. However, most cognitive research on fishes takes place in a highly controlled laboratory environment and it can therefore be difficult to determine whether findings generalize to the ecology of wild fishes. Here, we summarize four prominent research areas in fish cognition, highlighting some of the recent advances and key findings. Next, we survey the literature, targeting these four areas, and quantify the nearly ubiquitous use of captive-bred individuals and a heavy reliance on lab-based research. We then discuss common practices that occur prior to experimentation and within experiments that could hinder our ability to make more general conclusions about fish cognition, and suggest possible solutions. By complementing ecologically relevant laboratory-based studies with in situ cognitive tests, we will gain further inroads toward unraveling how fishes learn and make decisions about food, mates, and territories.

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We would like to thank Luke Brenton and Gheeda Mourtada for their participation in early discussions regarding the layout and content of this review. We would also like to thank Reuven Dukas and Jonathan Pruitt for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


This work was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery grant provided to SB. MGS was supported by an Ontario Graduate Fellowship. AJT was supported by the Hamilton Community Foundation (Eastburn Fellowship).

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MGS, AJT, CB, and SB conceived the idea for the review. MGS, AJT, AS, AP, EH, and SB conducted the literature survey and together wrote the first draft of the manuscript. MGS performed the analyses. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matthew G. Salena.

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Salena, M.G., Turko, A.J., Singh, A. et al. Understanding fish cognition: a review and appraisal of current practices. Anim Cogn 24, 395–406 (2021).

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  • Teleosts
  • Memory
  • Intelligence
  • Learning
  • Behavior
  • Decision-making