Teaching an old fish new tricks

By Hannah Scutter BSc

When training aquatic animals many people will think of dolphins and orcas, but rarely small aquarium fish. However, there are a few well known aquarium species that have been seen to learn to do just that. Species such as cichlids, in particular Oscars (Astronotus ocellatus), betta fish and even gold fish have been taught tricks by their owners. With a combination of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, lasers and clickers these training triumphs have been achieved. Supported by videos on Youtube, various blogs and facebook pages tricks such as swimming through hoops and playing fetch have been catalogued. In one such case a small aluminium foil ball was placed into an aquarium and a fish was shown to move the ball in front of its filtration pump in order for it to be then catapulted around its tank. This ball was then chased, caught and taken back to the filtration pump for round two. Colour recognition has also been expressed through similar learning styles.

A growing interest in such fishy fun has meant that there are now courses and kits available online to help others in their training adventures.

Perhaps we should all give our fish the chance to interact with us more often.


The Finding Nemo effect

By Stefania Unips

Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003, Pixar’s Finding Nemo tells the story of Marlin, a shy clownfish who sets out to find his abducted son, Nemo, with the help of a forgetful regal tang named Dory. While Marlin and his friend are facing the perils of the great ocean, Nemo is trapped in a small tank at a dentist’s office in Sydney together with a veteran group of fish.

Fining Nemo is a funny, heart-warming, visually stunning film which earned universal acclaim. But what impact did it have on the aquarium fish industry and, most importantly, on captive and wild clownfish populations?

The main idea of the movie is that fish are better off left in their natural habitats . Even though the message was clear to some audiences, two opposing phenomena occurred after the film’s release.

  • The ‘Let’s flush Nemo’ tragedy

Gill, a Moorish Idol and leader of the Tank Gang believed that ‘all drains lead to the ocean.’ This one line caused hundreds of children to flush their clownfish down the toilet in the hope of setting them free [1]. Unfortunately the kids didn’t know that fish cannot survive this journey: swirling water causes trauma; bacteria, gas and chemicals in the sewage system can poison or asphyxiate the fish and water treatment facilities always remove any solids present in the mix [2]. Despite the movie’s good intentions, it somehow managed to misinform the public, with disastrous consequences for the clownfish.

  • The ‘I want Nemo’ consequence

Studies have revealed that demand for clownfish soared after the release of the movie, as many children wanted a Nemo of their own. Because hatcheries were not able to meet the increased demand, retailers had to resort to buying wild caught specimens [3]. As a consequence, wild populations of clownfish were significantly reduced: “The lovable tropical species, immortalized in the smash Pixar movie Finding Nemo, is facing extinction  in many parts of the world because of soaring demand from the pet trade,” declared Dr. Sinclair, a researcher specialized in marine biology [4]. It may be argued that clownfish will not face extinction, however population decline is a possibility. This paper looks at the extinction risks associated with the film [5].

Why was the movie’s message so misunderstood by some and why was it completely ignored by others? Are charismatic species prone to extinction because they are charismatic?

Will Finding Dory have similar effects on Royal Blue Tangs? We will find out after the 17th of June, 2016, the official release date for the Finding Nemo sequel.

[1] http://www.fishupdate.com/dont-free-your-fish-by-flushing-kids-fishupdate-com/

[2] http://articles.latimes.com/2003/jun/26/local/me-nemo26

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2004/s1239666.htm

[4] http://www.nano-reef.com/topic/195006-finding-nemo-and-its-effect-on-clownfish-in-the-wild-and-in-the-aquarium-tr/

[5] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00206.x/full