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This Type of Fish Can Recognize Human Faces, Study Shows

Jun 08, 2016 05:30 AM EDT
Waikiki Aquarium--Archerfish
Study shows the archerfish can recognize a human face with surprising accuracy.
(Photo : Makuahine Pa'i Ki'i / Flickr)

Many of us can hardly tell a familiar face from a pool of new faces. But according to research, there's this type of fish that can recognize a human face with surprising accuracy.

Researchers at the University of Oxford and University of Queensland studied a species of tropical fish that has shown to have the ability to distinguish between human faces.

According to the study, the archerfish (Toxotes chatareus) were able to learn and recognize faces with a high degree of accuracy.

Researchers consider this an "impressive feat" given the task requires sophisticated visual recognition. All human faces have two eyes above a nose and a mouth, therefore telling one person from the rest would require us to identify subtle differences in their features. This can be particularly difficult considering family members have similarities in appearances, the researchers said.

Dogs are capable of distinguishing human faces, some primates also do, as well as some birds.

But many believe fish to be incapable of doing so because of their tiny brains.

Researchers studied the archerfish, which is known for its ability to spit jets of water to attack an aerial prey. Dr. Cait Newport, a research fellow in Oxford University's zoology department and co-author of the study, told CNN that the archerfish are sharpshooters and that "there is no ambiguity in where they are shooting."

In the study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, the fish were initially presented with two images of human faces and were trained to choose one of them using their water jet. The fish were then presented the learned face together with a series of 44 new faces and were able to pick the face they had learned earlier.

In the second experiment, they were also able to tell the learned face even after the head shapes were made to look the same and the colors of the photos were removed.

The archerfish reached an average peak performance of 81 percent during the first experiment and 86 percent in the second experiment.

"Fish have a simpler brain than humans and entirely lack the section of the brain that humans use for recognizing faces," Newport said.

"Despite this, many fish demonstrate impressive visual behaviors and therefore make the perfect subjects to test whether simple brains can complete complicated tasks," he added.

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