Fishes Recognize Human Faces: Why the Empathy Gap?

Archer fishes discriminate human faces by spitting or not as taught to do

Posted Jun 15, 2016

The more researchers study the cognitive and emotional lives of fishes, the more we discover just how smart and emotional they are (please see, for example, "Fishes Know, Feel, and Care: A Humane Revolution in Progress" and links therein). And now we know that archerfishes, who take down prey by spitting at them, are able to recognize human faces.

Source: Wikiwand

In a research paper by Cait Newport, Guy Wallis, Yarema Reshitnyk, and Ulrik Siebeck called "Discrimination of human faces by archerfish (Toxotes chatareus)" we read, "This study not only demonstrates that archerfish have impressive pattern discrimination abilities, but also provides evidence that a vertebrate lacking a neocortex and without an evolutionary prerogative to discriminate human faces, can nonetheless do so to a high degree of accuracy." 

How can we close the empathy gap?

The entire essay is available online as are numerous reviews for a broad audience, and here I just want to call attention to on-going research on fish cognition and emotions that shows how it's important to keep an open mind about the cognitive and emotional capacities of these beings who are often written off as mere streams of disposable and consumable protein.

One question that comes to mind and that needs to be studied in more detail is, "How can we use what we learn about fishes on their behalf?" Put another way, we can ask, "How can we use what we learn about fishes to close the empathy gap?" because fishes are far too often written off as non-feeling beings who are there for our consumption. In addition to the global depletion of numerous populations of fishes, we also are purveyors of incalculable pain, suffering, and death. 

Please stay tuned for more on the cognitive and emotional lives of this fascinating group of animals. And, please let's all use what we know about fishes to treat them with more respect and empathy. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Compassion and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in early 2017. (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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