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Fish can infer social rank by observation alone

An Erratum to this article was published on 01 March 2007


Transitive inference (TI) involves using known relationships to deduce unknown ones (for example, using A > B and B > C to infer A > C), and is thus essential to logical reasoning. First described as a developmental milestone in children1, TI has since been reported in nonhuman primates2,3,4, rats5,6 and birds7,8,9,10. Still, how animals acquire and represent transitive relationships and why such abilities might have evolved remain open problems. Here we show that male fish (Astatotilapia burtoni) can successfully make inferences on a hierarchy implied by pairwise fights between rival males. These fish learned the implied hierarchy vicariously (as ‘bystanders’), by watching fights between rivals arranged around them in separate tank units. Our findings show that fish use TI when trained on socially relevant stimuli, and that they can make such inferences by using indirect information alone. Further, these bystanders seem to have both spatial and featural representations related to rival abilities, which they can use to make correct inferences depending on what kind of information is available to them. Beyond extending TI to fish and experimentally demonstrating indirect TI learning in animals, these results indicate that a universal mechanism underlying TI is unlikely. Rather, animals probably use multiple domain-specific representations adapted to different social and ecological pressures that they encounter during the course of their natural lives.

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Figure 1: Tank arrangement and bystander training.
Figure 2: Time spent near rival males during preference testing.
Figure 3: Time spent during BD preference task as predicted by C combined rival behaviour.


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We thank S. Le for rescoring data for the reliability analysis, and T. Zentall, L. Harbott and P. Suppes for their comments. Supported by National Institutes of Health awards (R.D.F. and T.S.C.).

Author Contributions T.S.C. and L.G. were responsible for experimental design. L.G. was responsible for data collection and analysis. L.G. wrote the manuscript. T.S.C., R.D.F. and L.G discussed the experiment and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Logan Grosenick.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Figure 1 including additional information about fish training, preference testing, additional controls, and statistical analyses. (PDF 799 kb)

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Grosenick, L., Clement, T. & Fernald, R. Fish can infer social rank by observation alone. Nature 445, 429–432 (2007).

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