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The Mind of a Minnow

To find solid ground on which to base an appreciation of the behaviour of fishes, it is necessary to experiment, and we may refer to Miss Gertrude White's interesting work on American minnows and sticklebacks. After the fishes had become quite at home in their artificial surroundings, their lessons began. Cloth packets, one of which contained meat and the other cotton, were suspended at opposite ends of the aquarium. The mud-minnows did not show that they perceived either packet, though they swam close by them; the sticklebacks were intrigued at once. Those that went towards the packet containing meat darted furiously upon it and pulled at it with great excitement. Those that went towards the cotton packet turned sharply away when they were within about two inches off. They then perceived what those at the other end were after and joined them—a common habit amongst fishes. Although the minnows were not interested in the tiny "bags of mystery," they were even more alert than the sticklebacks in perceiving moving objects in or on the water, and there is no doubt that both these shallow-water species discover their food largely by sense of sight.

The next set of lessons had to do with colour-associations. The fishes were fed on minced snail, chopped earthworm, fragments of liver, and the like, and the food was given to them from the end of forceps held above the surface of the water, so that the fishes could not be influenced by smell. They had to leap out of the water to take the food from the forceps. Discs of coloured cardboard were slipped over the end of the forceps, so that what the fishes saw was a morsel of food in the centre of a coloured disc. After a week or so of preliminary training, they were so well accustomed to the coloured discs that the presentation of one served as a signal for the fishes to dart to the surface and spring out of the water. When baits of paper were substituted for the food, the fishes continued to jump at the discs. When, however, a blue disc was persistently used for the paper bait and a red disc for the real food, or vice versa, some of the minnows learned to discriminate infallibly between shadow and substance, both when these were presented alternately and when they were presented simultaneously. This is not far from the dawn of mind.

In the course of a few lessons, both minnows and sticklebacks learned to associate particular colours with food, and other associations were also formed. A kind of larva that a minnow could make nothing of after repeated trials was subsequently ignored. The approach of the experimenter or anyone else soon began to serve as a food-signal. There can be no doubt that in the ordinary life of fishes there is a process of forming useful associations and suppressing useless responses. Given an inborn repertory of profitable movements that require no training, given the power of forming associations such as those we have illustrated, and given a considerable degree of sensory alertness along certain lines, fishes do not require much more. And in truth they have not got it. Moving with great freedom in three dimensions in a medium that supports them and is very uniform and constant, able in most cases to get plenty of food without fatiguing exertions and to dispense with it for considerable periods if it is scarce, multiplying usually in great abundance so that the huge infantile mortality hardly counts, rarely dying a natural death but usually coming with their strength unabated to a violent end, fishes hold their own in the struggle for existence without much in the way of mental endowment. Their brain has more to do with motion than with mentality, and they have remained at a low psychical level.

Yet just as we should greatly misjudge our own race if we confined our attention to everyday routine, so in our total, as distinguished from our average, estimate of fishes, we must remember the salmon surmounting the falls, the wary trout eluding the angler's skill, the common mud-skipper (Periophthalmus) of many tropical shores which climbs on the rocks and the roots of the mangrove-trees, or actively hunts small shore-animals. We must remember the adventurous life-history of the eel and the quaint ways in which some fishes, males especially, look after their family. The male sea-horse puts the eggs in his breast-pocket; the male Kurtus carries them on the top of his head; the cock-paidle or lumpsucker guards them and aerates them in a corner of a shore-pool.