The Motivational Basis of Fish Behaviour

  • Patrick Colgan


For Aristotle, in Historia Animalium, the motivation of fish ranged from enjoyment of tasting and eating to madness from pain in pregnancy, and for Francis Day, summarising for the 1878 Proceedings of the London Zoological Society in the wake of Darwin’s epochal The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, fish were variously moved by disgrace, terror, affection, anger and grief. The study of motivation thus has long been central in the analysis of fish behaviour. In its daily activities of finding food, avoiding predators, fighting and reproducing, a fish is a motivationally diverse animal. This study focuses on the internal proximate causes of behaviour, variously labelled as drives, instincts, or causal systems (see McFarland 1974). Researchers such as Skinnerians, wary of the ontological status of such notions, have emphasised the dynamics of performance and the concomitant controlling variables in the environment. Though the existence and nature of causal systems are empirical matters, conventional wisdom about the economy of nature suggests that they are likely solutions to the common problems encountered by fish, and they are heuristically very convenient. Motivational systems are more than physiology writ large, and require investigation in their own right.


Courtship Behaviour Motivational Basis Fish Behaviour Sexual Motivation Bluegill Sunfish 
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© Tony J. Pitcher 1986

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  • Patrick Colgan

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