Fish recognize friends and foes through their unique faces

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By Lou Del Bello

A little striped fish that lives among rocks in Lake Tanganyika in East Africa has the unexpected ability to recognise individual faces, which it uses to keep menacing strangers in sight.

The cichlid (Julidochromis transcriptus) identifies unfamiliar individuals by looking at the pattern around their eyes rather than at other body parts such as their fins or trunk, researchers have discovered.

While facial recognition has been tested in some mammals, including apes, and in birds, animals such as fish or wasps were erroneously thought to have brains too simple for the task. After recent research showed that aquarium fish can be thought to identify the faces of their human owners, the Tanganyikan cichlid has now demonstrated how facial recognition is used in the wild.

Because the fish lives in rock crevices hidden by vegetation on the lakebed, only a small part of its body tends to be visible at any given time. This prompted the researchers to investigate which body element most attracts the fish’s attention.

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