Article image

Fish engage in physical punishment of their offspring for discipline

While the idea of corporal discipline in children is increasingly controversial among humans, the behavior of some fish species suggests that they find punishment of their offspring to be highly effective.

Recent research reveals that a species of fish uses physical punishment to encourage cooperative behavior among its offspring, showcasing advanced social and cognitive skills typically associated with higher vertebrates.

Physical punishment and fish dynamics

A team of researchers from the Graduate School of Science at Osaka Metropolitan University has discovered that Neolamprologus savoryi, a cooperatively breeding cichlid fish, employs physical punishment to promote helping behaviors.

For millennia, human societies have used punishment to foster cooperation and maintain social order. But how do other animals achieve similar cooperation?

The research team aimed to answer this by studying N. savoryi, a fish species known for its cooperative breeding behaviors.

Studying in a controlled setting

The researchers observed N. savoryi in a controlled laboratory setting, focusing on the interactions between dominant breeders and subordinate helpers.

These helpers, often offspring of the dominant breeders, assist in tasks such as defending territory and maintaining breeding shelters.

“Even though punishment in cooperatively breeding cichlid fish has been studied, there is limited evidence that they use punishment to encourage cooperative behavior,” said Satoshi Awata, the lead author of the study.

Fish, punishment, and cooperative behavior

The results were striking.

Dominant breeders were seen physically attacking idle helpers, including their own offspring, to encourage their participation in cooperative activities.

Helpers subjected to this aggression increased their helping behaviors significantly. Conversely, those who were proactive in their duties avoided such punishment.

“Our study demonstrated that nonhuman animals also use punishment to elicit cooperative behaviors in group members,” explained Awata.

Implications for animal intelligence

These findings suggest that the use of punishment to enforce cooperation is not exclusive to human societies.

It highlights how other animals maintain social relationships and enforce cooperation, bridging a gap in understanding the evolution of these behaviors.

“Our findings reveal that fish, like humans, employ advanced cognitive abilities to sustain their societies. This compels us to reconsider the notion of ‘intelligence’ not only in fish but across the animal kingdom,” Awata added.

This research prompts a reevaluation of intelligence and social behavior in animals, emphasizing the complexity of fish societies and their methods of maintaining order and cooperation.

Other behaviors of fish

Fish exhibit a diverse range of behaviors that extend far beyond what this research highlights. Social structures in fish can be complex, involving hierarchies and intricate communication systems.

Many fish species, such as clownfish and cleaner wrasse, form symbiotic relationships where mutual benefits drive their interactions. For example, cleaner wrasse eat parasites off larger fish, benefiting both parties.

Schooling behavior is another fascinating aspect. Fish like sardines and herring move in synchronized groups, which helps reduce individual predation risk and improves foraging efficiency. This collective movement requires advanced coordination and communication.

Reproduction and parental care

Reproductive behaviors in fish are also varied and complex. Some species, like the stickleback, exhibit elaborate courtship displays. Others, like salmon, undertake long migrations to spawning grounds, demonstrating remarkable navigational abilities.

Parental care in fish ranges from none to extensive. Cichlids, for instance, protect and care for their young, while some fish, like seahorses, exhibit unique roles where males carry and birth the offspring.

Territorial behaviors are common, with fish like damselfish aggressively defending their space from intruders. These behaviors often involve visual displays and physical confrontations.

Overall, fish behavior showcases a wide array of adaptive strategies for survival, reproduction, and social interaction.

Understanding fish offspring punishment

Cooperative behavior in fish holds significant ecological and evolutionary importance. It enhances survival by optimizing resource use, improving defense against predators, and increasing reproductive success.

Species like the cleaner wrasse benefit from mutualistic relationships, improving health and reducing disease. Cooperative breeding, seen in cichlids, ensures better care for offspring, increasing their survival rates.

These behaviors highlight advanced social structures, challenging traditional views of fish intelligence and social complexity.

Understanding these interactions aids conservation efforts and offers insights into the evolution of social behaviors across species, illustrating the intricate balance of aquatic ecosystems.

The full study was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day