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Fish pool their experience to solve problems collectively

Nature Ecology & Evolution volume 1, Article number: 0135 (2017) | Download Citation


Access to information is a key advantage of grouping. Although experienced animals can lead others to solve problems, less is known about whether partially informed individuals can pool experiences to overcome challenges collectively. Here we provide evidence of such ‘experience-pooling’. We presented shoals of sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) with a two-stage foraging task requiring them to find and access hidden food. Individual fish were either inexperienced or had knowledge of just one of the stages. Shoals containing individuals trained in each of the stages pooled their expertise, allowing more fish to access the food, and to do so more rapidly, compared with other shoal compositions. Strong social effects were identified: the presence of experienced individuals increased the likelihood of untrained fish completing each stage. These findings demonstrate that animal groups can integrate individual experience to solve multi-stage problems, and have implications for our understanding of social foraging, migration and social systems.

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This work was funded by an ERC Advanced Grant to K.N.L. (EVOCULTURE, ref. 232823). We thank K. Meacham for assistance in preparing the manuscript.

Author information


  1. School of Biology, Harold Mitchell Building, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9ST, UK.

    • Mike M. Webster
    • , Andrew Whalen
    •  & Kevin N. Laland
  2. Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush, Edinburgh EH25 9RG, UK.

    • Andrew Whalen


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M.M.W. designed and performed the experiments. M.M.W., A.W. and K.N.L. analysed the data and co-authored the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mike M. Webster.

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    Supplementary Methods; Supplementary Figures 1–4; Supplementary Tables 1–3

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