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Goldfish Have No Memory
Status: False
Popular legend has it that goldfish have no memory, which is why they're happy to swim around in small glass bowls. (Actually, I had never heard this legend before, but my wife had.) Now researchers in the UK have debunked this legend. The Telegraph reports:

The urban legend of the amnesiac fish has been dealt a new blow by a study which shows that goldfish can learn to avoid parts of their tanks where they receive electric shocks for at least 24 hours, probably longer... The new study was conducted by Rebecca Dunlop, Sarah Millsopp and Peter Laming at the Queen's University of Belfast and is published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science... The Belfast team showed that goldfish can remember accurately where in their tanks they receive electric shocks. The stronger the shocks, the less likely the fish were to return to the sector of the tank where they had received them. The team reported similar results with trout.

Giving fish electric shocks sounds a little cruel, but I guess you can't test them with flash cards, or put them in a maze. Of course, the legend of the forgetful fish might have arisen because goldfish are oxygen-deprived and near blindness from being kept in those little round bowls.
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 31, 2006
Comments (19)
More from the Hoax Museum Archives:
This was also covered on an episode of Mythbusters (Discovery channel) recently. I didn't see all of it, just the end. But one of them did use a simple maze (more like baffles to be swum around) and a food reward. The goldfish were signaled with a certain color, if I remember correctly.
Posted by Tah  on  Tue Jan 31, 2006  at  11:19 PM
I wonder how exactly they administered the electric shock to the fish in a fishtank?
Posted by Accipiter  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  12:26 AM
I saw that MB episode too. I think they had used colored rings at key points in the maze to draw the fish to the opening they needed to pass through. The maze in this case was just three clear plastic walls with holes at various levels to move through. Even though the fish did manage to get through there was still a lot of confusion with the fish. I'd like to see that episode again, the fish might not have remembered the color as much as they just were able to bumble through the maze or even see the plastic.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  04:37 AM
Actually, in that MB episode, they used two mazes (2 people trying to teach the fish to swim through). One never could make him fish go through, the other one was succeeding with an average time of under 1 minute. They therefore proved that the fish COULD be taught and that it was not pure chance that they were getting through it =)
Posted by xfkldjg  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  05:32 AM
Further to all that, a couple of years ago a team from Plymouth University were researching how much you can teach fish
Posted by Iain  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  06:25 AM
Fish in general are smarter than we humans give them credit for. Anyone who is doubtful about their capacity for memory needs to explain how come they get so excited when they see you come up to the tank, fishfood in hand. They definately remember that Big Scary Giant = food.

As an aside, it IS cruel to keep golfish in bowls....actually it's cruel to keep a goldfish in anything much smaller than 10-20 gallons per fish with LOTS of surface area. Another fallacy is that they "grow to the size of the tank" - they don't. They just die before they grow bigger due to poor living conditions.

Can you tell I'm a fishkeeper, lol? I'm also a mother and get livid on a daily basis when I see that schmuk elmo with his goldfish in that stupid bowl...... 😖
Posted by MadCarlotta  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  08:07 AM
One of the things they never tell on kids shows is that the goldfish doesn't LIVE in the bowl, he's just put there for the show and then taken back to his tank later. I think they should teach that to kids. Otherwise they are just perpetuating the "disposable pet" mindset.
I used to work at a pet store in the fish dept. and I would get so upset with people who said things like, "It's just a fish" or "Well, if it dies, I can always get another one" and I think the low prices of certain easy to breed fish make this a situation that will last. I would have to hold back from getting all preachy at them, which sucked.
Rant, rant, rant....😛
Posted by thephrog  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  10:04 AM
Someone should zap the scientists.
Posted by Sakano  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  10:40 AM
This "experiment" is nothing but senseless cruelty. Anybody who's ever kept fish in a tank or pond knows that they can learn and remember many things, such as who feeds them and where, for example. As Mad Carlotta and the Phrog say, it IS cruel to keep a goldfish in a small bowl, but that's because the bowl is too darn small for a fish that grows to be a foot long. How would you like to live in the trunk of a car for the rest of your life?
Posted by Big Gary in a bad neighborhood  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  11:59 AM
... Uhh, cruelty? They're fish, guys. FISH. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.
Posted by J  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  12:28 PM
Just because fish are something you don't care about doesn't mean what they're doing to them isn't cruel.
Posted by Sakano  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  12:34 PM
I always heard they remembered for 3 seconds.
Posted by FlintJ  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  04:42 PM
Yeah, and just because you care about fish doesn't mean it IS. That's the great thing about opinions.
Posted by J  on  Wed Feb 01, 2006  at  10:37 PM
Well then, J, if you want to state your opinion, don't act like other people's opinions are less valid than yours. ("They're fish, guys. FISH.")
Posted by Sakano  on  Thu Feb 02, 2006  at  04:33 AM
Well, pulling wings off of flies is considered cruel - not to mention being a warning sign of a seriously disturbed individual potentially destined for a career in serial killing - and they are just BUGS.

I'm kind of divided on the whole animal testing thing in general. I don't like it, but I will half-heartedly concede that it's a necessary evil in SOME circumstances such as finding cures for horrid diseases, etc.

I don't however see the point of shocking goldfish just to determine whether or not they can retain memory. I can think of many other ways that don't involve pain to the animal that would generate the same result. It just seems like a pretty stupid thing to do when as mentioned previously, it's quite obvious to the people that keep them as pets that they DO have a memory. I can also think of a million other causes that could have used the funding they wasted on "proving" this and put it to a much better use.
Posted by MadCarlotta  on  Thu Feb 02, 2006  at  08:41 AM
1. If you gently splash the surface of a goldfish tank before feeding them, after a while (days or weeks depending on the fish) they will remember and surface whenever you wiggle your finger in the water.

2. I have no idea if the tests were cruel but simply based on the article, there's no indication that the shocks were painful. If you've ever worked with electricity, you've probably felt minor non-painful shocks that you immediately notice but cause no pain. I don't see why the scientists couldn't have used these.
Also, even if they used as strong a current as possible, the test wouldn't cost more than turning on a lightbulb for a few minutes. The funding for this experiment wouldn't have made a difference for another use.
Many fish can detect electric pulses (some detect prey this way) so I would imagine a very slight charge would be detected painlessly. If they administered the shocks this way, it would be much more humane than tapping on the glass (something I see many people thoughtlessly doing in pet stores).
Again, I have no idea about the exact nature of the tests but we should get more information before condemning them.
Posted by mark  on  Thu Feb 02, 2006  at  12:09 PM
lots of them too many to put them all down
Posted by natalie  on  Tue Feb 07, 2006  at  01:16 PM
thanks for all the opinions and explanations guys.
im just looking for a cool science project

Posted by MJ  on  Thu Sep 28, 2006  at  09:24 AM
i know goldfish can remember more than what most people think they can.
Posted by Devin  on  Tue May 27, 2008  at  09:32 AM
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