Recent research suggests that friendly fish collaborate with each other to keep themselves safe while feeding.
The study, published in the Scientific Reports journal, was conducted by the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.
It was established that fish look after one another while searching for food, in order to keep predators at bay. Although this type of collaborative behavior had been identified among social birds and mammals, it was proven that rabbitfish display the same patterns of helping each other out.
“We found that rabbitfish pairs coordinate their vigilance activity quite strictly, thereby providing safety for their foraging partner”, explained Dr. Simon Brand, of the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
Normally, one of the fish feeds on benthic algae, while the other one ensures that there is no danger lurking in the waters. The vigilant fish remains stationary and upright, keeping a close eye on potential predators.
This “reciprocal cooperation”, which allows coral reef partners to take turns and keep each other safe, hasn’t been found among fish before. Experts proved that thanks to this behavior rabbitfish can take more bites of food, and “penetrate deeper into crevices”, thus gaining an advantage over other fish that are solitary feeders.
According to researchers, the recent discovery actually flies in the face of everything we knew about fish, which we considered to be “cold, unsocial and unintelligent”. It was formerly believed by marine biologists that collaborative behavior is based on highly complex social and cognitive skills, which these species were deemed to be devoid of.
However, research seems to indicate that fish are more developed creatures than we might have expected. They appear to be capable of coordinating with each other in order to reach common goals, and to cooperate effectively.
Other research has also implied that fish may have more intricate social structures than previously thought.
For example, according to experts, blackspot cleaner wrasses set up a “cleaning station” where other reef fish come and enjoy relaxing massages. In this symbiotic relationship, cleaner wrasses remove parasites and debris from the body, fins and mouths of their “clients”.
Another study published in April 2013 showed that coral trouts team up with moray eels to hunt for prey, when their quarry hides in deep reef crevices.
Co-author David Bellwood suggests that recent findings may change our perception of marine species. Eventually, we might understand them as “highly developed organisms with complex social behaviors”. Following this radical shift in perception, we might treat fish more ethically and gain new insight into their actions.
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