Isolation impairs cognition in a social fish
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In variable environments, animals can learn to alter their behavior to adjust to changes. Sometimes, however, this learning ability can be impaired. For example, challenges in the social or physical environment can trigger physiological responses that compromise an individual's capacity to learn and these can prevent the animal from modifying its behavior to cope with the altered environment. One such disruption that might affect learning ability is the isolation of an individual that would normally live in a social group. To investigate the effects of isolation on cognition, we tested whether social isolation impairs learning skills in a cichlid fish, Cichlasoma paranaense. Two treatments were compared, one with isolated individuals and another with fish housed as part of a social group. Cognition was assessed in terms of the fish learning to associate a visual landmark with an accessible food reward. Fish searched for a food reward in a T-maze: a green or a yellow visual landmark signaled which chamber contained accessible food. Learning was assumed when a fish was able to find the food in nine out of ten trials. All fish, regardless of treatment, found it challenging to reach the learning criterion, but fewer isolated fish (3 out of 15 fish) were likely to learn the task compared to fish housed socially (7 out of 14 fish) (Bayesian logistic regression with 95% of chance that the two treatments differ). The results therefore suggest that social isolation for a normally social species of fish can impair learning. Furthermore, given that fish sometimes need to be isolated to treat them in a specific way, or to monitor an individual's response during a test, our results suggest that there may be some welfare implications for the way we treat and use social species of fish in empirical studies.