Archerfish can recognize human faces

Archerfish have not only recently been an interesting object of science. The perch relatives fascinate researchers and laypeople with a unique hunting technique. The fish shoot insects from surrounding shore plants with a jet of water, only to then eat them in the water. Now a study shows that the clever animals are able to recognize human faces or distinguish them from one another.

Awesome guy!  Archerfish can not only aim accurately "shoot"but also accurately distinguish faces – Shutterstock / blackbit17

Awesome guy! In addition to being able to “shoot” with pinpoint accuracy, archerfish can also distinguish faces with pinpoint accuracy – Shutterstock / blackbit17

The archerfish stands upright with its body in the water, the fish’s mouth is barely visible, the tongue is pressed firmly against the upper palate – and boom! By squeezing the gill covers, the water rushes out of the fish’s mouth towards the victim in a steady stream. The ants, flies, beetles and other insects don’t even know what’s happening to them, because they are already lying in the water and being eaten. As if this hunting technique weren’t intriguing enough, researchers from Oxford University have now found that the archerfish is also able to recognize humans – remarkable for animals with such a non-complex brain.

Unusual: Fish can distinguish human faces

It is quite an achievement for a small fish brain to be able to distinguish faces, especially from people, i.e. creatures that are completely alien to their species. “It’s a surprisingly difficult task to distinguish between a large number of human faces, especially when you consider that the faces all have the same basis,” explains Cait Newport of Oxford University. “All faces have two eyes, a nose and a mouth,” the study’s researchers said. This presupposes that a distinction must be made between certain subtleties – not that easy at all.

Just as the archerfish can shoot insects from leaves and blades of grass with deadly precision, it can memorize faces with equal precision. For a long time, scientists assumed that only humans and other primates, such as chimpanzees, could distinguish faces. The human brain has a specific region for this task – the so-called gyrus fusiformis, also called spindle swing. Archerfish and many other small animals don’t have this brain region, but they can still discriminate.

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Archerfish recognize familiar faces in the experiment

In the experiment, Newport and her colleagues presented the archerfish with two human faces that the animals could remember. The archerfish then shot one of the faces and got a reward. If the fish were shown dozens of other faces in the next phase of the experiment and only occasionally a picture of the two familiar faces was shown, the fish shot at the familiar face around 80 percent of the time. In the video you can see how the animals shoot out of the water at the displayed faces:

The experiment shows that a complex brain is not a prerequisite for the ability to distinguish between faces. By the way: Some birds and possibly also bees can distinguish faces.

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